Much of the nation's attention Wednesday was focused on recruiting -- which college football programs had landed the most promising high school stars to fill their stadiums on fall Saturday afternoons.
Relatively little attention was paid to another matter of recruiting, one involving principles and implications far more important than who will be displaying their athletic prowess for roaring crowds come September.
In Washington, hundreds of soldiers -- up to 200 officers, including at least two generals -- are under investigation for what the Pentagon says was a large-scale scam to cash in on a National Guard recruiting program. At the heart of the alleged scheme were kickbacks and fraudulent payments from cash bonuses offered to civilian recruiting assistants.
The roots of the scheme go back almost a decade. In 2005, with both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raging, the armed services were failing to meet recruitment goals. So the Recruiting Assistance Program was created to boost enlistment, and civilian recruiters were to be paid for referrals.
Recruiters in uniform were forbidden to accept such bonuses -- but, investigators say, they managed to get the money anyway. Some pressured the civilians to split the money; others allegedly registered civilian recruiters for the program and never told them about the bonuses at all; they just substituted their own bank information for the civilians', and had the money deposited directly into their own accounts. The program was discontinued in 2012, when compelling evidence of wrongdoing began to surface.
This whole scheme appears to have been the military equivalent of white-collar crime. (One case reportedly involved about $1 million split among five officers.) Investigators know the scam has cost taxpayers at least $29 million, and could involve as much as $66 million more.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight, called this investigation "one of the largest that the Army has ever conducted, both in terms of the sheer volume of fraud and the number of participants." It's so widespread, in fact, that some officials say it might take two more years to complete the investigation.
The case is indeed staggering, both in scope and in the degree of sheer amoral shamelessness. This program was created, perhaps naively, as an incentive to recruit people for what very well might involve life-or-death missions. That so many Americans in uniform apparently saw it as a get-rich-quick opportunity is dispiriting and disgusting. Those found to have been directly involved deserve public contempt, dishonorable discharge and some serious jail time.
Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, former director of the Army National Guard, surely spoke for most Americans when he said, "We gotta catch the first peckerwoods to get out here and mess this thing up for everybody, and we gotta prosecute them quickly."