Army on Pace to Meet Year's Recruiting Goal

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

The Army will meet its goal of recruiting 80,000 new active-duty soldiers this fiscal year but will fall short in the percentage of high school graduates as the education level of enlistees dips below the norm of the past decade, according to senior Pentagon officials.

The Army's apparent success in meeting the U.S. military's biggest recruiting mission marks a significant rebound from last year, when the Iraq war, low unemployment and a shortage of recruiters contributed to the service's failure to make its active-duty target for the first time since 1999.

Pentagon officials attributed the gains primarily to a beefed-up active-duty recruiting force, which grew from 5,100 at the beginning of 2005 to 6,600 this year. "The most fundamental reason for success was the increase in recruiters in the field," said Curtis L. Gilroy, director of accession policy at the Pentagon.

In addition, Congress authorized a doubling of the maximum enlistment bonus from $20,000 to $40,000. It also instituted special recruiting incentives, such as extra pay of up to $500 a month for recruiters who exceed their goals and a $1,000 bonus for soldiers for each person they refer to recruiters who completes boot camp.

The influx of new soldiers bodes well for the all-volunteer military engaged in its first sustained combat, boosting the Army's active-duty manpower by roughly 10,000 troops at a time when the nation's main ground force is bearing the brunt of the fighting and casualties in Iraq.

"We all know if we don't get recruiting right, the rest doesn't matter too much," Gilroy said.

By the end of August, the Army had recruited nearly 73,000 soldiers -- or 104 percent of the fiscal year-to-date goal for active duty -- chalking up an unusually high summer target of more than 10,000 recruits a month.

"I fully expect we will make our 80,000 mission for the fiscal year," Maj. Gen. Sean J. Byrne, director of Army personnel, told reporters. "I am more than satisfied with the quality of the soldiers," he added.

But though the number of Army recruits has grown this year, the number of those meeting key Pentagon standards has declined compared with the past several years.

For example, the proportion of recruits holding a high school diploma was 81.2 percent as of August, falling below the Pentagon benchmark of 90 percent for the second year in a row. The last time the Army fell to such a low level of high school graduates was in 1981, when it dropped to 80 percent.

As of August, about 61 percent of the Army recruits scored above the 50th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test -- the lowest percentage since 1985 but still above the Pentagon's benchmark of 60 percent. About 3.7 percent of enlistees had the lowest acceptable scores, slightly below last year's figure of 4 percent but well above the average for the past decade.

In addition, the number of soldiers granted waivers for medical conditions, drug or alcohol problems, or misdemeanors has gradually increased, from 10 percent in 2001 to 15 percent last year, with this year's figure expected to be slightly higher, according to Byrne and Army data. "The Army understands that some people make mistakes in their lives" and should be afforded an opportunity to serve their country, Byrne said.

Still, Pentagon officials said they were not overly concerned about the measures, in part because they do not reflect the newly implemented tests of motivation and fitness designed to glean from the pool of less qualified soldiers those who are likely to perform well.

This year, for example, the Pentagon implemented military-wide a program designed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to test the fitness of potential recruits who are in good condition but are heavier than average, such as football players. About 1,000 Army recruits this year were granted waivers after they passed the test of 15 minutes of step climbing and 15 push-ups, Gilroy said.

An additional 5,000 Army recruits who lacked high school diplomas but had GEDs received waivers this year after they passed a new screening test for motivation and dependability, which research has shown to correlate with staying in the Army.

Overall, only about 25 percent of American 17-to-24-year-olds -- 4.6 million -- are qualified to join the military. The rest have crime, drug and medical problems that exclude them, such as the 25 percent who are obese, Gilroy said.

Meeting next year's active-duty recruiting target of 80,000 will remain a major challenge for the Army, which will start the year with a pool of only about 14 percent of recruits who have signed contracts but not entered boot camp -- compared with the goal of 25 to 35 percent.

"The recruiting environment is very tough, very difficult," Byrne said, because of the economy, low unemployment and "the obvious fact that we're a nation at war."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company