Stars and Stripes: JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The U.S. Army now says that seven out of 10 young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are ineligible to become soldiers.
The alarming reduction in the pool of prospective soldiers worries Army brass, and they largely attribute it to three issues: obesity or health problems; lack of a high school education; and criminal histories.
“There’s a reliance on an ever-smaller group of people to serve and defend the country,” said Maj. Gen. Allen Batschelet, commanding general for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. “What do we do about that and how do we address that concern?
“That’s the big national security question that I’m struggling with today.”
Facing challenges like more restricted access to schools and technological changes that require hiring for positions with very specialized skills like cyber warfare, the Army is preparing for a recruiting offensive using new tools and techniques to redefine the 21st century soldier.
“I would say it’s modernizing, or defining in a more precise way, what is considered quality for soldiers,” Batschelet said.
The current state of Army recruiting remains solid.
Influenced by budget cuts and the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a still sluggish economy, the Army has been able to tighten requirements while still meeting its manpower needs.
“Today, the Army is at about 500,000 troops,” Batschelet said. “Given the current guidance that we’re getting from Congress, the chief of staff of the Army’s plan is that he has to take the Army down to about 450,000.”
The result has seen the Army drawing its most highly qualified soldiers, according to current Army standards, in recent memory.
“This last year we recruited 96,000 young men and women for both the active and reserve [Army],” Batschelet said. “The quality was some of the highest we’ve experienced in many, many years.
“We had almost 95 percent of our regular Army recruits who were high school grads.”
In fact, with the current educational requirements of a high school diploma, two of the most-decorated soldiers of World War I and World War II, Alvin York and Audie Murphy, would be ineligible to join the Army today.
“We’re looking for America’s best and brightest just like any Fortune 500 company out there,” said Lt. Col. Sharlene Pigg, head of the Jacksonville-based 2nd Recruiting Brigade. “We’re looking for those men and women who excel in science, technology, engineering and math.”
However, the Army may be pricing itself right out of the market.
“That three in 10 number that I mentioned, we think that number is headed to two in 10 by 2020,” Batschelet said.
Along with so many young people ineligible to serve, the Army is also becoming more of a “family business,” he said.
“We know that about 79 percent of our recruits report that they had a family member who served or was currently serving,” Batschelet said. “That’s a little troubling to us because we want to broaden those opportunities and get other young Americans to join.”
From baby boomers to young millennials, nearly everyone had a father, grandfather or other family member who served in the military.
However, as the Greatest Generation passes away, that is no longer the case.
“The fewer people who serve, the more troubling that becomes for the nation,” Batschelet said.
In addition, the general also acknowledged that, in some areas of the country, recruiters see less access to high school students due to a variety of factors.
“We’re seeing an increasing trend with schools shutting us out from access or making access pretty restricted,” Batschelet said. “Then the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Test) test itself, schools are either choosing to not administer the ASVAB or withholding results from recruiters.
“There are unintended consequences there, because we think that is indirectly sending the signal that service to country in the military is not an honorable profession or something to which you should aspire.”
In Batschelet’s view, this serves to limit opportunities for high school students. “It denies young people an opportunity to hear about some of the benefits, both tangible and intangible, of serving in the Army,” he said. “That’s an issue for the other services also, I believe.”
However, in the Southeast — what one might call the “Solid South” — that seems to be less of a problem.
Historically, the Southeast has punched above its weight for soldiers per capita and still does.
“They are at a higher propensity even in the face of lower unemployment numbers for the youth there is, in the Southeast, a higher propensity broadly for young people to consider joining the Army,” Batschelet said.
Recruiters in Jacksonville have noticed this as well.
“I would say that overall we have had great access to all of our school districts,” Pigg said. “We have a great rapport with the faculty, we have access and, as a whole, I would say they’ve embraced our recruiters on the school campuses.
“Also, there is just the overall South having a high propensity to serve.”
In many other areas of the country, the same does not hold true and Army policymakers are putting forth never-before-seen proposals to try to combat the dwindling pool of recruits.
“The two definitions of quality today, which are doing well on the ASVAB and a high school diploma, maybe that’s not holistic enough for the future,” Batschelet said. “So we’re moving into the arena of non-cognitive testing and personality testing.
“Maybe your academic scores aren’t all that great, but you’ve got some characteristics that would allow you to perform well as a soldier.”
Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking ideas, especially for hard-line Army traditionalists, is a changing of standards for certain roles inside the Army.
Obesity alone, according to numbers cited by the Army, has risen in children ages 12 to 19 from 5 percent in 1980 to 17.6 percent in the 2006, the most recent year available.
The current Army policy is that every recruit, whether enlisting for infantry or graphic design, has to meet the same physical requirements to join — that may be changing.
“Today, we need cyber warriors, so we’re starting to recruit for Army Cyber,” Batschelet said. “One of the things we’re considering is that your [mission] as a cyber warrior is different.
“Maybe you’re not the Ranger who can do 100 pushups, 100 sit-ups and run the 2-mile inside of 10 minutes, but you can crack a data system of an enemy.
“But you’re physically fit, you’re a healthy person and maintain your professional appearance, but we don’t make you have the same physical standards as someone who’s in the Ranger Battalion.”
Batschelet admitted that such a drastic change may be hard for some to swallow.
“That’s going to be an institutional, cultural change for us to be able to get our heads around that is kind of a different definition of quality,” he said.
“I would say it’s a modernizing, or defining in a more precise way, what is considered quality for soldiers.”
However the Army chooses to adapt, the central problem remains that the service is facing a shortage of eligible soldiers unlike it has faced since it became an all-volunteer force in 1973.
“Societally, the bottom line is that the Army had a demand-based model under the all-volunteer force for the last 40 years,” Batschelet said. “We didn’t have to worry too much about it because supply was adequate to demand.
“It just doesn’t look like that is going to be the case going forward.”
Written by Clifford Davis, Stars and Stripes
Lorra B. Chief Writer for Silent Soldier