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November 2000
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A military recruiter told me that my son could sign up for the military but not be sent to war because he is an only child. Is this true?

Contrary to what is often said by recruiters, no restrictions are automatically placed on the assignment of only children. They can be sent to war zones. NBC News revealed this recruiting practice in an investigative report aired during the Gulf War (NBC Expose with Tom Brokaw, February 24, 1991). Unfortunately the myth you heard is widespread.

Although no automatic restrictions are placed on assigning a service member to a war zone solely because he or she is an only child, the services do have a special provision for "sole surviving sons or daughters." This category is defined in a very narrow way. A "sole surviving son or daughter" is the only remaining son or daughter in a family in which an immediate family member has died as a result of service, is missing in action (MIA), is a prisoner of war (POW), or is 100% disabled and unemployable as a consequence of military service.

The "sole surviving son or daughter" may request a discharge from the services except in a period of war or national emergency declared by Congress. A service member may forfeit this right to be separated if he or she chooses to remain on duty or re-enlist after he or she becomes aware of this discharge provision. The military tries to screen for this possibility by asking a question on military enlistment documents. The services do not want this issue to come up later for someone who might have fallen into this category before he or she enlisted.

Much of what the public has come to think about this issue stems from the controversy surrounding the Sullivan family tragedy during WWII. Two Sullivan brothers were among 700 sailors that died in the sinking of the Juneau near Guadalcanal in November of 1942. At the time, the Navy called the deaths "the greatest single blow suffered by one family...in American naval history." According to current policy, siblings may serve in a war zone as long as they are in different units.

The above exceptions apply to a small number of persons, not to the average person who joins the military. Recruiters should know better than to mislead young people and their loved ones about a matter of such grave importance.

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