Military relaxing standards to meet recruiting goals

By Mike Tolson and John Gonzalez Houston Chronicle

Posted on Thursday, January 4, 2007

HOUSTON — War news arrives daily from Iraq, and most of it is bad. But for Summer Jones and Benjamin Downing, the ongoing mayhem was of minor consequence as they began to consider their future.

Both decided to join the Army, reasoning that the potential danger was far outweighed by what military service might mean personally and professionally.

“ It will help me to mature, to grow up, ” said Jones, 19, a former nurse’s assistant who recently has been waiting tables while wondering what to do next.

“ In the future, in any kind of work, this will always be first on my resume, ” said Downing, 23, who graduated this year from the University of Houston with a math degree. “ It’s something that’s unlike anything you can do in the civilian world. ”

The two recruits, who officially begin their military life Wednesday, are just what the Army wants: Enthusiastic young people open to challenge and dedicated to country. Problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to find as many as it needs.

Military recruiters around the country are struggling to reach their goals. So the government has boosted sign-up bonuses, some standards have been relaxed and there is talk of going after more foreign nationals to expand the ranks.

Although recruiting targets were hit in 2006, the backdrop of an unpopular war and the projection of future needs are not encouraging. President Bush is mulling a new strategy in Iraq, including, reportedly, boosting troop levels.

The Army has suggested adding at least 20, 000 troops and the Marines 5, 000, while one prominent retired Army general pegged the real need at 80, 000 and 25, 000 — but few doubt the challenge involved in getting them.

“ It’s a tight economy — essentially a full-employment labor market — and a significant expansion would have to be extended over a number of years, ” said Thomas Donnelly, a military expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “ There is no magic solution. It will cost money. It will have to be something that not only politicians but other Americans stress. It has to be a political priority for both parties over a long period of time.

“ We will have to be receptive to creative ways such as opening the door a little wider to immigrants. ”

The tentative proposal to recruit more immigrants, with citizenship offered as a potential reward, would put even more recruiting emphasis on Texas.

That’s fine with Lt. Col. Troy Reeves, who heads the Army’s Houston Recruiting Battalion.

“ Texas is one of the absolute best locations for recruiting, ” said Reeves, whose command covers much of east and southeast Texas. “ This area is patriotic, period. It starts in school, it starts at home. People are patriotic toward the country, the military and the state. ”

As a result, Texas remains a major source of enlisted combat troops. Of the nearly 80, 000 people recruited by the activeduty Army in 2006, 9, 400 were Texans, officials said.

“ Historically, Texas has been one of our strongest producers and it continues to do so, ” said Fort Worth-based Gunnery Sgt. Jay Connolly, spokesman for the 8 th U. S. Marine Corps District.

The just-ended year “ was pretty spectacular. We continued to meet or exceed all of our recruiting goals, ” Connolly said, adding that targeted recruits are 18 to 24 years old.

Although the Marines offer enlistment bonuses like the other services, Connolly said they aren’t emphasized.

“ We tend to focus more on the intangibles, ” he said. “ It’s more important to us that you understand you’re committed to becoming a Marine rather than being in it for money. ”

The Army touts a variety of bonuses for enlistments, re-enlistments and referrals.

“ Sometimes the dollar amounts are a way to get people in, just to explore the opportunities, ” said Julia Bobick, spokesman for the U. S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. The bonuses helped the active Army achieve its recruiting goal in 2006 after coming up short the year before.

“ With the (Iraq ) conflict going on, there is a lot of apprehension to overcome, ” Bobick said, “ and recruiters do face a lot more challenges when talking to people, especially their parents and influencers ”

For Jones and Downing, it didn’t take much of a sales job. Jones had always been interested in law enforcement. She saw the military police as a good way to get into the field.

“ My brother was in the Navy, and he said it was a good thing to do for your life, ” she said. “ I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. I talked to a lot of people who had been in the military. Finally I woke up one day and said, ‘ I’m gonna do this. ’ You have to push yourself to limits you’re not pushed to every day. ”

Unlike Jones, Downing is enlisting as an officer candidate. He weighed the opportunities in the Army against the private sector and thought he would get more experience quicker.

“ You can’t just go into a management position right away in the civilian world, ” said Downing, who minored in mechanical engineering and is looking down the road at joining the Army Corps of Engineers. “ There is a big spectrum of jobs available. Plus, it’s a way of serving your country while getting some good lessons to learn for life. I know it’s absolutely possible that I get sent to Iraq, but the actual chances of peril probably are not as great as people think. ”

If Jones are Downing are close to the ideal for Army recruitment, many other applicants fall short. The Army says it takes only three of 10 who apply. In parts of the country where recruiting goals are harder to meet, there is growing pressure to be flexible on some of the standards for acceptance.

“ We find that recruit quality cannot simply be measured by the test scores and the diplomas, ” Bobick said. Instead, the “ whole person” is analyzed, and in some cases deficiencies are tolerated and waivers are granted, she said.

The Army uses recruiting standards set by the Department of Defense and Congress. Applicants must be able to meet medical, moral, physical, education and aptitude challenges.

Army officials say that almost half of the waivers of those standards are for medical reasons (asthma, flat feet, blood pressure, vision ). They say almost 90 percent of the moral waivers are for misdemeanors (curfew violations, a single instance of driving while intoxicated, altered driver’s license, illegal use of credit card under $ 500, one instance of marijuana possession ).

The Army also is embracing older recruits. In June, it raised to 42 the top age for enlistees, which allowed a grandmother to enlist. Six months earlier, it had upped the limit from 35 to 40 years of age. And in a move aimed at qualifying younger recruits, the Army also eased its rules governing visible tattoos.

Relaxing standards is one way to bolster troop strength, said Beth Asch, a Rand Corp. senior economist specializing in defense manpower. Two other likely moves involve increasing the number of recruiters, now 8, 200, and re-enlisting more soldiers. But none of the tactics would be quick solutions, she said.

“ You don’t get 20, 000 people in the Army overnight, ” Asch said.