October 11, 2007
The U.S. Army met its recruiting goals for the last year but enlisted thousands of new soldiers with criminal records and fewer who have earned high school diplomas, according to figures released Wednesday.
The spike of new enlistees given "character" waivers for fiscal 2007 continues a steady upward trend in the number of recruits with past arrests and convictions allowed into the Army since the start of the war in Iraq.
More than 11 percent of the Army recruits needed waivers for problems with the law -- up from 7.9 percent the previous year and more than double the percentage in 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq. Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, stressed that a vast majority, about 87 percent, of those allowed in with waivers had misdemeanors for such offenses as joy riding or violating curfew. Most faced little punishment beyond community service for their actions, Bostick said.
But at the same time, the number of enlistees with felony convictions and arrests in their pasts has increased. In 2003, the Army allowed 459 enlistees with felony arrests and convictions into the service compared to 1,620 this past year. The startling figures come at a time when the Army is trying to grow amid persistent questions about how the armed forces can increase force size during a time of war without significantly lowering the quality of recruits.
Overall, the Army surpassed by 407 its goal of enlisting 80,000 recruits for the year, and three other branches of the military met or surpassed their recruiting goals for their active-duty components. Four of the six reserve components met their recruiting goals, with the Army National Guard and Air Force National Guard falling just short.
The Army met the annual recruiting goal after missing its May and June targets. Before May, the Army had hit its goal every month since June 2005. About 18.5 percent of the recruits needed some kind of waiver, including those for medical problems and drug and alcohol issues. More than 54 percent of those who received waivers, however, were enlistees with criminal backgrounds.
A 'tough standard'
David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, defended the waiver policy and said that the services are stringent in their screening process while at the same time careful not to penalize someone for a youthful indiscretion.
"That's a pretty tough standard," he said. "Not to be cheeky about this, but [if] we apply that standard to our legislative overseers, a significant fraction would need waivers to join the United States military."
Additionally, the Army, which carries a vast majority of the weight in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the percentage of new recruits with high school diplomas slip for the fourth straight year to below 80 percent, well below the Defense Department's goal of 90 percent.
More than 94 percent of Army enlistees in 2003 had earned a diploma, according to U.S. Army Recruiting Command statistics.
The Army, as well as the Marines, is in the midst of a substantial push to raise the level of forces to help alleviate the stress on a military that has been stretched by simultaneously fighting two wars. Late last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved an Army plan to accelerate by two years, to 2010, its goal to increase the permanent force to 547,000 from the present troop level of about 512,000.
More than half of the new recruits brought in between July and Sept. 30 were paid $20,000 "quick-ship" bonuses. The bonuses require recruits to report to boot camp within 30 days of recruitment.
The Army's strategy for increasing the size of its force centers on retention rather than recruiting new soldiers, Army officials said.
Chu acknowledged that military recruiters face obstacles as parents and others who influence young people have shown more resistance to the military as the wars have dragged on.
"I think it's important for all citizens to support the choices of young people, and this is one of the ironies we've seen in this extended conflict; that the young people are willing to step forward, but the more senior members of our society -- not to indict my own generation -- are less willing to applaud that choice when they do so," Chu said.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, said the data indicate that the Army has lowered the bar on whom it allows into the service while providing further evidence signaling Americans' disenchantment with the war in Iraq.
'Recipe for disaster'
"This is a recipe for disaster," said Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. "In the long term this can be a serious problem for the military."
The waiver policy has long been a safety valve that the U.S. military has turned on and off as necessary, giving commanders and recruiters the leeway to loosen restrictions during difficult recruiting times and to become more selective during peace time periods when military service may seem to be more attractive.
Army officials said that waivers granted for serious misconduct are rare and given only with the approval of senior commanders. A majority are for juvenile offenses that resulted in fines or unsupervised probation.
In some cases, the charges were dismissed after probation was completed.
Beth Asch, a senior economist and expert on military recruitment and retention at the Rand Corp., said that the decline in the number of enlistees with high school diplomas is more disconcerting than the increase in the number of character waivers granted by the Army.
She expressed confidence that the Army is screening out people who committed serious crimes and giving second chances to people whose mistakes may have been the result of immaturity. But Asch said that statistically employees without a high school diploma tend to be less productive.
"One reason you don't bring in non-grads is they tend not to complete things," Asch said. "People who are better educated tend to be learners and the military needs life-long learners."
Copyright ę 2007, Chicago Tribune