The US army is having to turn to more high school dropouts and lower-achieving applicants to fill its ranks, accepting hundreds of recruits in recent months who would have been rejected a year ago, according to army statistics.
Eight months into the recruiting year, the percentage of new recruits in the army without a high school diploma has risen to 10 percent, the upper limit of what the army is willing to accept, from 8 percent last year. The percentage of recruits with scores in the lowest acceptable range on the standardized test used to screen potential soldiers has also risen to 2 percent, also reaching the army's limit, from slightly more than a half-percent last year, reaching the highest level since 2001.
The overall numbers of lower-achieving recruits is still a relatively small part of the more than 41,000 recruits who have either signed an enlistment contract or entered basic training since October. Officials emphasized that the quality of this year's recruits still meets or exceeds the army's goals, and that the service will not lower its standards to meet its monthly quotas.
But as the army formally announced on Friday that it had missed its recruiting goal for the fourth consecutive month, senior army officials and independent military personnel specialists said the profile of this year's recruits raised troubling questions about the quality of recruits entering the service.
"The overall quality of the force today is lower than it was a year ago," said David Segal, who directs the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "It means they can anticipate more problem situations with recruits in the training cycle."
Several recruiters, in interviews over the past six months, said they were told in February to start accepting more recruits who are ranked in Category 4 on the military's standardized aptitude test - those who score between the 10th and 30th percentiles on the military's standardized test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
A recruiter in Washington said that at the time he was concerned about whether these recruits could handle the increasingly high-technology tools of combat.
Another recruiter in New York said this month that the army seemed to care less about quality than filling the holes left by soldiers who decline to re-enlist. "It's about one thing: numbers," he said.
Recruiters and army officials say news coverage of the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused many parents, coaches, school advisers and other adults with influence over young people to warn them against a military career now.
The active-duty army is not the only branch of the armed services suffering recruiting woes.
The Pentagon also said on Friday that the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve and Air National Guard fell short of their targets last month for shipping new recruits to boot camp.
The Marine Corps shipped its quota of new recruits last month, but for the fifth straight month missed its monthly contracting goal. Marines who sign a contract are sent to basic training some time in the future, and the military uses the contracting figures as an early indicator of trouble.
"We don't have a sense of crisis or desperation," Robert Magnus, the deputy Marine commandant for programs and resources, said. "Understandably, American moms and dads read the newspaper and watch TV, and may or may not have special interests and concerns as their sons and daughters consider becoming soldiers or Marines."
To help, the army has added 1,000 new recruiters since September; offered a new 15-month enlistment, instead of the previous minimum two-year term; and run new advertisements aimed at parents. The army is also considering plans to double the top cash enlistment bonuses for recruits in some specialties to US$40,000, and to begin a pilot program to provide up to US$50,000 in home mortgage help to recruits who enlist for eight years of active duty.
The quality of recruits is a delicate issue for the army, which halted recruiting for a day last month to review practices after some recruiters were found to have broken or bent rules to meet quotas.
According to an army spokesman, Bryan Hilferty, in the first eight months of this fiscal year, 10 percent of the recruits the army accepted earned a high school diploma by passing the General Educational Development, or GED, test, instead of graduating. For all of 2004, the army accepted 8 percent of applicants without a high school diploma. In addition, the army has so far recruited roughly 800 recruits -- about 2 percent of all enlistees -- who are deemed category 4, the lowest level.
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