Jul 1, 2014

Fat and drugged up, More Than Two-Thirds of American Youth Wouldn’t Qualify for Service, Pentagon Says

Recruits' Ineligibility Tests the Military (Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2014):
More Than Two-Thirds of American Youth Wouldn't Qualify for Service, Pentagon Says

More Than Two-Thirds of American Youth Wouldn't Qualify for Service, Pentagon Says

More than two-thirds of America's youth would fail to qualify for military service because of physical, behavioral or educational shortcomings, posing challenges to building the next generation of soldiers even as the U.S. draws down troops from conflict zones.

The military deems many youngsters ineligible due to obesity, lack of a high-school diploma, felony convictions and prescription-drug use for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But others are now also running afoul of standards for appearance amid the growing popularity of large-scale tattoos and devices called ear gauges that create large holes in earlobes.

A few weeks ago, Brittany Crippen said she tried to enlist in the Army, only to learn that a tattoo of a fish on the back of her neck disqualified her. Determined to join, the 19-year-old college student visited a second recruiting center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and was rejected again.

Apologetic recruiters encouraged her to return after removing the tattoo, a process she was told would take about year. "I was very upset," Ms. Crippen said.

The military services don't keep figures on how many people they turn away. But the Defense Department estimates 71% of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. would fail to qualify to enlist in the military if they tried, a figure that doesn't even include those turned away for tattoos or other cosmetic issues. Meanwhile, only about 1% of youths are both "eligible and inclined to have a conversation with us" about military service, according to Major Gen. Allen Batschelet, commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

Comparable data aren't available for earlier years because the Pentagon began tracking eligibility only recently. But experts said seniors graduating from high school this year face the longest odds to qualify for military service since the draft was abolished in 1973.

"The quality of people willing to serve has been declining rapidly," said Gen. Batschelet.

Each year, about 180,000 young men and women successfully volunteer for America's active-duty forces. An additional 110,000 join the services' reserve and National Guard units. Individual services manage their own recruiting and have the authority to grant waivers to applicants who don't meet broad standards.

When the military faced escalating foreign engagement in recent years, recruiting standards were loosened: In 2007, only 79% of those who enlisted in the Army had completed high school, compared with 90% in 2001, while the Army also accepted recruits with more excess body fat during the height of the Iraq war.

"We have not adopted a zero-defect mentality. We evaluate each applicant from a whole-person perspective," said Nathan Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman, who added that military services have been meeting their recruiting targets in recent years.

To some degree, that has been aided by enlistment bonuses. From 2000 to 2008, the Defense budget for enlistment bonuses more than doubled to $625 million, and it jumped more than 50% to $1.4 billion for selective re-enlistment bonuses, according to a Rand Corp. analysis.

Obesity, the single biggest reason for disqualifying new recruits, and other obstacles, such as poor educational attainment, led 90 retired military leaders in 2009 to form Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness and seeking solutions. The group has lobbied state and federal officials to improve nutrition in schools and expand access to early education.

"We're trying to make decision makers see this is a national-security matter—and they need to prioritize it," said retired Major Gen. Allen Youngman. In the past, he said, "a drill sergeant could literally run the weight off a soldier as part of the regular training program," but now, "we have young people showing up at the recruiter's office who want to serve but are 50 or more pounds overweight."

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