The military has loosened recruiting standards to enlist older, less educated soldiers — some with criminal pasts — in an effort bolster the nation’s dwindling volunteer ranks.
Critics warn the new policies would leave the U.S. with military defenses that are too old, too unskilled, and too poorly behaved to protect America’s future.
Five years into an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, the Army barely made its annual recruiting quota of 80,000 for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 after missing several monthly goals. Army and Air Force National Guards are still short, and future recruitment is looking bleak, officials say.
“This country is turning against the war, so people are not letting their children join,” Dr. Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Newsmax. “To attract and keep troops, the Army is taking some extraordinary steps, which may have disastrous consequences to the military’s future.”
For example, the Army is lowering the bar on requirements for enlistment, beginning with granting more waivers to would-be soldiers who have had problems with the law.
The U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., reported that the Army allowed 1,620 enlistees with felony arrests and convictions into the forces this year, compared with just 459 in 2003.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” says Korb, who served as assistant secretary for manpower and reserve under President Reagan. “Parents are being told that their kids who want to enlist will be more likely to be living in the barracks with convicted criminals.”
The number of “moral character” waivers granted to recruits who would otherwise be ineligible for enlistment jumped to 12,057 last year, the highest total in five years. Some 18 percent of Army recruits required such waivers in 2007, up from 15 percent in 2006.
Even worse, notes Michael Boucai, Georgetown University law professor, “The Armed Forces’ narrowly constrained use of official criminal records entails almost complete reliance on recruits’ own confessions of wrongdoing,” and many can be missed.
Federal officials admit that such recruits are more likely “to become disciplinary cases or security risks” and “disrupt good order, morale and discipline.” Between 1990 and 1993, 26.6 percent of Armed Forces members with a moral waiver washed out due to “misconduct,” compared to 13.3 per cent of those without a moral waiver, the Government Accountability Office found.
The Army also raised the maximum enlistment age twice, from 35 years, to 40 years, and finally, to 42 years, in 2006, meaning troops will be older. Other service branches did not increase their age maximums.
Education requirements also have been lowered. In 2003, more than 94 percent of new recruits had a high school diploma. This year, that number dropped to just 79 percent, causing serious concern for whether these soldiers will be able to adequately perform in an increasingly technical military environment.
Increased bonuses for enlistment, re-enlistment and “quick-ship” bonuses of up to $20,000 for a recruit willing to hit boot camp within 30 days of enlistment, are making recruitment a high-cost proposition as well, with retention alone costing the military $660 million this year, according to the Army Times.
Even with the dramatic changes, standards are likely to drop even further, experts predict. The Army plans to expand its permanent force from 512,000 to 547,000 by 2010, meaning even higher recruitment goals must be met.
“One way to add more troops would be to reinstitute the draft,” says Korb. “But that won’t happen, because the people and Congress won’t allow it. If that happened, we would be plunged back into the ‘60s protest era overnight.
“The Army is going day to day, just praying this war ends. We’ll be paying the price for lowering enlistment standards for 10 years.”
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