Mil­i­tary com­petes for peo­ple with civil­ian work­place

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Tom Van­den Brook @tvan­den­brook USA TO­DAY

WASH­ING­TON Faced with in­creas­ing de­mand for new sol­diers, the Army has reached deeper into the pool of marginally qual­i­fied re­cruits, of­fered hundreds of mil­lions in bonuses and re­laxed the process for grant­ing waivers for mar­i­juana use.

The Army will reach its goal of 80,000 new sol­diers with­out com­pro­mis­ing qual­ity, pre­dicted Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Snow, who leads the ser­vice’s re­cruit­ing com­mand. Congress has re­versed trends be­gun in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to down­size the mil­i­tary. An ad­di­tional head­wind for re­cruit­ing in all the ser­vice branches: a grow­ing econ­omy in which the civil­ian job mar­ket, not the mil­i­tary, at­tracts young peo­ple.

“It’s in an en­vi­ron­ment where un­em­ploy­ment is 4.5%,” Snow said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

So long as the Army, the largest of the armed ser­vices, con­tin­ues to tin­ker at the mar­gins by ac­cept­ing a small num­ber of re­cruits with lower qual­i­fi­ca­tions, it won’t en­counter the prob­lems it did in the mid-2000s, said Beth Asch, an ex­pert on mil­i­tary re­cruit­ing at the non-profit

RAND Corp.

In 2005, as long, haz­ardous de­ploy­ments to Iraq and Afghanistan be­came com­mon, the Pen­tagon re­laxed stan­dards for re­cruits who had fared poorly on stan­dard mil­i­tary ex­ams. Those who scored in the lower third of the tests, so-called Cat­e­gory Four re­cruits, had been lim­ited to 2% of new troops. The stan­dard was re­laxed to 4% and was ex­ceeded at times.

The haz­ard of ac­cept­ing re­cruits with poor qual­i­fi­ca­tions was high­lighted by a case from 2006 in which an Iraqi girl was raped and her fam­ily killed by sol­diers, one of whom re­quired

waivers for mi­nor crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity and poor ed­u­ca­tional back­ground to join the Army.

Smarter sol­diers, RAND has found, are bet­ter fight­ers.

In the past fis­cal year, 2017, the ac­tive-duty Army re­cruited nearly 69,000 sol­diers, and 1.9% be­longed to Cat­e­gory Four. That’s up from 0.6% in 2016. The low­est fig­ure in re­cent years was in 2013 when it dipped to 0.2% Re­cruit­ing was eas­ier sev­eral years ago, Asch noted, when the econ­omy was re­cov­er­ing from the deep re­ces­sion.

The Pen­tagon re­quires that the ser­vices ac­cept no more than 4% of re­cruit­ing classes from Cat­e­gory Four.

The Army needs a steady flow of re­cruits through­out the year to fill spots in ba­sic and ad­vanced train­ing cour­ses. Ac­cept­ing more re­cruits from Cat­e­gory Four in the win­ter and spring — its tough­est months for re­cruit­ing — kept those seats full, Snow said.

Grant­ing the ser­vices more flex­i­bil­ity in ac­cept­ing re­cruits on the mar­gins, or some who ad­mit­ted smok­ing mar­i­juana, can save money on bonuses with­out af­fect­ing the mil­i­tary’s abil­ity to fight, Asch said.

Last year, the Army spent $424 mil­lion on bonuses for re­cruits. That’s up from $284 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2016 and dwarfs the $8.2 mil­lion paid out in 2014.

Grant­ing more waivers to re­cruits who ad­mit­ted smok­ing mar­i­juana — drug use is pro­hib­ited in the mil­i­tary — re­flects its le­gal sta­tus in sev­eral states, Snow said. Prospec­tive sol­diers must vow not to use again.

Pre­vi­ously, a two-star of­fi­cer such as Snow had to grant the waiver. That au­thor­ity has been del­e­gated to the level of a lieu­tenant colonel, he said. The change was made for fis­cal year 2017 when 506 waivers were granted. In 2016, there were 191 waivers.

“The big thing we’re look­ing for is a pat­tern of mis­con­duct,” Snow said. “Smok­ing mar­i­juana in an iso­lated in­ci­dent as a teenager is not a pat­tern of mis­con­duct.”

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