Military services seek to expand pool of potential recruits

With a historically small pool of potential recruits, DoD wants to help more potential service members qualify.

As the military looks at another year where it will likely fall short of its recruiting goals, its services want to find ways to bring in new sources of recruits. It means working with candidates who previously fell short of standards, issuing waivers to others and finding underrepresented demographic groups.

The services lowered their recruiting goals for 2024 after failing to meet their 2023 targets in most cases; only the Marine Corps met its goals. The Army said only 23% of 17- to 24-year-old Americans are fully qualified to serve, with similar numbers for the Air Force and Navy.

The Navy plans to follow the lead of the Army in creating a future sailors preparatory course. The program will help recruits who failed to meet academic or physical standards train to increase their scores.

“We will work very closely with recruits to ensure their physical and mental readiness before they report to boot camp,” Erik Raven, the undersecretary of the Navy told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday. “This physical preparatory course will be followed by an academic preparatory course with establishment expected this summer.”

The Army established its future soldiers program last fall and considered it successful enough to expand this year. The department said 3,206 potential recruits attended the program in 2022, and 2,965 graduated and went on to attend basic combat training. The program started at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and expanded to a second location at Fort Benning, Georgia early this year.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said recruiting could be helped by allowing more categories of immigrants to serve, including those who have yet to achieve citizenship. The retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel said she intends to reintroduce a version of the ENLIST Act this year.

“This legislation will allow the Department of Defense to expand its recruiting pool to include individuals like DACA recipients and other longtime residents in this country who can pass a DoD background check and meet the services’ high standards for enlistment,” Duckworth said.  “We don’t lower the standards at all. In fact, we require them to meet the standards, while maintaining the department security standards.”

Two previous versions of the act failed to pass Congress, one in 2017 and one in 2019.

Several members of the committee urged service chiefs to find a way to fast-track waivers. The military issues waivers to potential recruits in order to let them serve after they failed to meet a minor requirement. Waivers are often given for past marijuana use, or for use of medications that treat behavioral health issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“The waiver process is fine, except it’s a waiver process. And it involves a lot of steps and a lot of time, and somebody might just say the heck with it, I’ve got a good offer over here in the private sector,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

Service chiefs agreed that finding a way to expedite the waiver process could help qualify more recruits.

In addition to waivers, the services have sought to relax standards in some cases to widen their net. The Air Force recently changed its rules on allowing recruits with tattoos. Airmen and guardians can now have some tattoos on their hands and the back of their necks, as long as they meet the services’ requirements for size and content.

“I mean, obviously, you can’t have people with gang tattoos or tattoos on their faces. But they got a tattoo of a dragon on their back, what does it matter? I know lots of people who did,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-Ark.).


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