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“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost;

For the want of the shoe, the horse was lost;

For the want of a horse, the rider was lost;

For the want of the rider, the battle was lost;

For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;

And all for the want of a nail.”

Swap “nail” for “tooth” in Ben Franklin’s epigram and you’ve captured part of the plight of today’s U.S. Army. For the past three years, about one in four Army reservists and National Guard soldiers called to active duty couldn’t be cleared to climb on a plane and head for one of the dozens of hot spots where our troops are deployed around this blood-spattered globe – because of “rotten teeth.”

I kid you not. Tens of thousands of Minutemen and Minutewomen have had to hit the dentist’s chair stateside for taxpayer-funded drillin’ ‘n’ fillin’ before heading downrange.

Out of approximately 165,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers currently on active duty, the Army surgeon general estimates that around 30,000 won’t be good-to-go because fighting-fit doesn’t just mean these soldiers can run like a deer, do push-ups like a paratrooper and shoot as straight as Alvin York, but also that their pearlies have to be the right stuff. Since that number of soldiers costs the Army $3.6 billion per year to support, heavy dough’s being wasted on folks who won’t initially qualify as fighting-fit when Uncle Sam comes calling.

The cost for this dental care alone runs into the millions of dollars, and the need for it dramatically erodes the readiness of the Army. Not to mention that U.S. Army dentists plain can’t cope. They’re working overtime and frequently have to ask civilian docs for a hand. In one case, “Class 3s” – the Army’s label for soldiers who are non-deployable because of dental problems – were actually bused three hours from Camp Atterbury, Ind., to Army dentists at Fort Knox, Ky.

The Army experienced exactly the same toothache during Desert Storm. But obvious solutions, such as more funding and the authorization of more Reserve full-time dentists in order to provide adequate treatment during active-duty drills, have been ignored during the past decade.

Now the Army chief, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, has used emergency authority to exceed the congressionally set limit of 482,000 soldiers – the maximum number that can be on active duty – by as many as 30,000 soldiers.

Thirty thousand soldiers. Almost exactly the number who can’t deploy because of bad teeth.

And there are thousands of other Reserve soldiers who can’t deploy because of ailments such as fallen arches or pregnancy.

Schoomaker himself recently admitted that 15 percent of his regular Army isn’t deployable either. That means about 75,000 regular soldiers – more than half his forces now fighting in Iraq – aren’t good-to-go. We’re talking $9 billion a year for troopers who can’t fight. Schoomaker’s Pentagon aide says the bulk of this deadwood is made up of soldiers with “medical, legal or family problems” or those who are in boot camp.

In fact, if the Army were to clean up its act, it would have more than enough soldiers at its present authorized strength to do the job. But that would be after a fundamental reorganization of the force structure that’s remained basically unchanged since the end of the Cold War.

At present, for example, thousands of critical grunt slots are tied up staffing redundant headquarters and maintaining obsolete or excessive outfits such as tube artillery, air defense and support units designed to put down a Soviet Union that choked to death on its own blubber more than a decade ago. This plus the staggering impact of failed social experiments that have contributed to an Army with too many malingerers who can’t or won’t fight add up to a slack force in serious trouble.

So not only does the Army have to figure out how to fill teeth more efficiently, it absolutely must bring its 20th-century organization fast-forward into the century at hand. That means trimming all excess padding and filling the ranks with a far higher ratio of lean-and-mean soldiers truly fit to fight the grueling and demanding war against terrorism that won’t be going away anytime soon.

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