Sept. 14, 2011 – 10:47 p.m.

Senate Reservists Find Ideas in Afghanistan Service

Three Republican senators who recently deployed to Afghanistan as military reserve officers have returned with legislative proposals inspired by that experience.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an Air Force Reserve colonel and lawyer, Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, a Navy Reserve commander and intelligence officer, and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and lawyer, each were each stationed in combat areas in August.

Kirk is planning to offer an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Defense appropriations bill that would provide soldiers deployed to combat areas free wireless Internet service to allow them to communicate with their families.

Soldiers now pay Internet service providers up to $100 a month to access videoconference sites such as Skype, which they use to communicate with family members.

“It should be part of the basic package for troops. . . . Soldiers want to talk to their spouses in their hooch,” Kirk said.

Kirk also is working with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon on another idea that grew out of his reserve deployment. The proposal, which the two senators announced Wednesday, would establish a pilot program to give some 56,000 Medicare beneficiaries an electronic identification card similar to the “smart cards” issued to military personnel. The program is expected to cost $18 million.

The cards, which resemble credit cards, would replace paper identification cards that more than 45 million Medicare beneficiaries carry. The smart card would contain basic identifying information such as a beneficiary’s Social Security number.

Brown is pushing a proposal (S 342) that would bar federal contracts or subcontracts to be awarded to an enemy of the United States. The measure is an outgrowth of numerous complaints from soldiers concerned that military contracts are being funneled to affiliates of terrorist organizations and criminal groups. “They are using that money to harm or kill our troops,” Brown said.

Graham said the reserve deployments give lawmakers a chance to walk in the shoes of soldiers and a valuable perspective of the needs and concerns of U.S. troops in the field.

Until recently, the Pentagon barred members of Congress from being deployed as military reservists to combat areas. But the policy that began during World War II under President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended quietly in 2008, when Graham helped persuade President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to allow lawmakers in military reserve units to request brief deployments to combat areas in Afghanistan or Iraq.

In 2008, Graham and Kirk became the first lawmakers since the early 1940s to serve in a combat area, in their cases Afghanistan, when they were sent on separate deployments to Kabul and Kandahar.