The military has long been the job of choice for thousands of young men and women graduating from high school without any specific plan other than a desire to see the world, serve their country and maybe earn a bit of money for college in the process.
That option is becoming less available as the military begins to scale down in earnest, especially the Army, where recruiting requirements are increasingly more stringent and more soldiers are finding themselves unable to reenlist. Also, with the poor job market for many college graduates, more recruits with at least some college under their belts are seeking job experience through the military.
In short, it is becoming more competitive than ever to secure a spot in our nation’s Armed Forces.
At its peak during the Iraq War, the Army numbered about 570,000. As of the end of March, it was down to 558,000. By 2017, the Department of Defense plans to trim ranks to 490,000 soldiers.
Army officials hope to accomplish most of the necessary cuts through increased recruiting standards and voluntary separations. But Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has warned that as much as a third of the cuts could be involuntary, potentially forcing career soldiers out of the military before they secure retirement.
Earlier this year, Army Secretary John McHugh outlined the new criteria for denying reenlistment, singling out soldiers who have received a letter of reprimand for incidents involving drugs or alcohol, or those who did not qualify for promotion in line with their time in service.
During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army was forced to lower its recruiting standards in order to meet mission requirements, allowing recruits with a wide range of disciplinary issues to enter the service. These could be anything from a misdemeanor like shoplifting or assault all the way to a felony conviction for robbery or manslaughter. Exceptions were also made for recruits with low aptitude scores or a history of medical problems.
In 2006, 2 in 10 Army recruits entered the military through some type of waiver. By 2007, it was nearly 3 in 10. This trend continued until 2009, when Defense Department officials disseminated new guidelines that lowered the number of individuals allowed to enter the military on waivers.
As of last year, only about 10 percent of recruits entered the Army on a waiver, and most of those — about 7 percent — were medical waivers. The Army accepted no new recruits with a history of drug or alcohol abuse or any kind of misconduct conviction, according to a recent report by The Associated Press
Waivers continue to be a source of contention among military officials. For some, it allows smart, capable recruits who have come from troubled backgrounds an opportunity to serve. For others, soldiers who enter the military with disciplinary, medical or alcohol problems often continue to struggle and are the source of additional problems throughout their careers.
The problem with this kind of initiative is it’s difficult to quantify what makes a good soldier, much less a good leader. The soldier with the highest test score is not necessarily the one you want next to you when the bullets start to fly.
Good leadership is something that takes time to develop, and the military has invested a lot in the current infrastructure. How much of that could be lost in the coming months is anyone’s guess. Experience, unlike education, is not so easily acquired, and if the military is not careful, they could end up losing some of their most experienced soldiers.
Photos courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.