Alfonzo Blount Jr. of inner-city Washington wants to join today's Army.
In his zeal to be all that he can be, he calls or visits an Army recruiter on Florida Avenue NE nearly once a week. He says he was "a drill team freak in ROTC" at Phelps vocational high school before he dropped out last year. He has a black belt in Korean karate.
"If a general or something like that saw my attitude about the Army, he would let me in," argues Blount, 18, who works part-time in a delicatessen and spends the rest of his time "doing nothing."
Today's Army, however, doesn't want Blount.
Like all branches of the armed forces, the Army is fat with potential enlistees. With the nation's worst recession in 50 years strangling job opportunities, the all-volunteer Army can afford to be more selective than it has ever been.
"The Army is less of a way out for anybody anymore," says Capt. Donald C. Spiece Jr., who directs Army recruiting in downtown Washington and Montgomery County. "The Army no longer can be considered a last resort."
Four years ago the Army was criticized for accepting too many recruits, black and white, who weren't very smart, and for fraudulently enlisting others who were clearly unqualified. It was forced to simplify its training manuals, using shorter sentences and more pictures. Meanwhile, the proportion of black enlisted volunteers reached a record high of 36.7 percent, nearly three times the proportion of black youths in the general population. There was grumbling in the Pentagon and in Congress about "the black problem."
In the past three years, aided by record high post-war unemployment, the Army has entered a golden age of recruiting. The largest branch of the armed services, which traditionally has had the most trouble filling its ranks, has managed to raise its standards and at the same time exceed its national recuiting goals.
Last year, more recruits than ever before in the Army's history--86 percent--were high school graduates. The number of male high school dropouts enlisted in the Army fell by 25 percent. The Army made a concerted effort to recruit in the suburbs, relocating or opening more than 700 recruiting stations. It also fine-tuned its $60 million a year "Be All You Can Be" advertising campaign to appeal to teen-agers in what it calls "higher mental catetories."
In the past four years, the proportion of new black volunteers in the Army fell from 36.7 to 24.6 percent.
The Army's personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, last year reveled in the recruiting success. "There is no bad news," the general said.
What makes the general happy strikes Alfonzo Blount Jr. and other inner-city teen-agers as unfair.
"You know what, I think the Army should let these black kids in there. So they wouldn't be roaming the streets," says Blount, who could have joined the Army if he had been old enough to enlist two years ago, when standards were lower. "When they get turned down, they got nowhere to turn to."
In recent months, the frustration and anger of young men like Alfonzo Blount has filtered up to neighborhood leaders in Washington and to the national headquarters of civil rights organizations.
"It definitely has had an enormous impact on a lot of these kids who had hopes of getting in. They are at a total loss. When a kid can't get in the Army, he wallows around. Nine times out of 10 he will get in trouble," says Garry Garber, who has been working with inner-city dropouts and delinquents for 26 years as an area manager for Roving Leaders, a youth agency in the District where teen-age unemployment exceeded 40 percent last year.
Samuel D. Wright, national labor and armed forces director for the NAACP in New York, said his organization sees the decline in black enlistments as a problem "because it cuts back the opportunities which are low in the beginning for blacks. The chances for getting out of the ghetto are lost to them and the door is being closed."
Since World War I, black leaders and many economists have viewed the Army as a bridge to a better life for disadvantaged blacks. Commentators ranging from W.E.B. Dubois to Milton Friedman have cited the military as a way out of poverty and a ladder for social mobility.
Blacks who serve in the military tend to earn more money in later life and are less likely to end up in jail than blacks who do not serve, according to Charles C. Moskos Jr., a sociologist at Northwestern University and one of the nation's experts on military enlisted culture.
The Army, however, like all branches of the armed forces, has no mandate as a social outreach agency. Congress three years ago forced higher standards on the Pentagon, sharply limiting the number of non-high school graduates and those who score below average on the armed services entrance exams.
One Army official, who refused to be identified, summed up the current recruiting situation this way: "It may not be good for urban inner-city America, but it certainly is good for the defense of the United States of America."
For Alfonzo Blount, who lives with his grandmother on 7th Street NW, the "sellers market" means that he has no choice but to wait and see if the Army will lower its standards. Blount scored a 42 on the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). A high school dropout, ("I quit school because I couldn't live at home and get along with my stepmother. It was basically my fault, but I didn't learn that till now.") he needs a score of 50 to qualify for enlistment today. As recently as 18 months ago, 42 would have qualified him.
"All he needs is eight more lousy points," says Sgt. Denise Smith, the recruiter Blount contacts weekly. "He was very, very disappointed when he couldn't get in. And hurt also. I really see this young man as desperately needing to be in the Army because of his home situation."
There are no comprehensive figures available on how many youths have been denied enlistment in the armed services because of recent higher standards. The Army said in hearings last year that more than 17,000 applicants, seeking 120,600 jobs, flunked the 1982 reading entrance exam. In the District, the number of high school dropouts enlisted in the Army fell from 203 in 1980 to 49 last year. In the same period, the total number of Army enlistees from the District--overwhelmingly high school graduates who scored well above average on the admission test--increased from 535 to 658.
The tightening of enlistment standards has revived a long-standing dispute over whether the military's standardized admission test is biased against blacks and other minorities. It also has raised questions about the fairness of the Army's recent reluctance to admit high school dropouts, who, according to U.S. Census figures, are disproportionately black and Hispanic.
"What the armed services are looking for is higher quality, and--by the way they define quality--that means higher socio-economic class," says Martin Binkin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institition who specializes in military manpower. "Unfortunately, by the present standardized testing methods they use, kids in the inner city by and large are not able to compete."
It is generally accepted by testing experts (and the Pentagon's own recent tests confirm) that blacks, along with other disadvantaged minorities, score significantly lower on standardized tests than do whites.
"If scores are adjusted so that 50 percent of whites qualify on a standardized test," says Binkin, coauthor of "Blacks and the Military," "then roughly 16 percent of the black population will qualify."
The Army's current glut of recruits, however, will end soon as the so-called Baby Boom fizzles out, according to census statistics. Projections show the pool of 17-to-21-year-old males, which the armed forces considers the prime market for recruiting, shrinking by one million in the next four years.
A sharp turnaround in the national economy could also dry up the recruiting market and reopen the Army for inner-city youths who now are not qualified.
In the meantime, Alfonzo Blount Jr. says he will continue to wait.
"Most of the time," he says, "I just stay in the house and try to keep out of trouble."