Published on Tuesday, June 11, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Army Relaxes Its Standards to Fill Ranks
Critics say push to meet quotas may let unstable recruits join up
by Anna Badkhen
Pentagon officials announced Monday that the Army has managed to achieve its latest recruiting goals, while admitting that they have lowered some standards that had been set to ensure the quality of the force.
But as the military continues investigations into alleged atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, some experts worry that the Army, stretched thin by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and under pressure to fill its ranks, might be signing up soldiers who should not be in the service.
"The issue is not whether they've met their quota," said Winslow Wheeler, an expert on the U.S. military at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The issue is quality ... and what concessions they are willing to make to meet this quota."
Coincidentally, the Pentagon's announcement on recruiting came on the same day the military identified several soldiers it accuses of participating in the rape and murders with Green.
Green faces murder and kidnapping charges in the case. Four others, identified as Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spc. James P. Barker, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard, face similar charges, while Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe is charged with dereliction of duty for failing to prevent or report the attack.
Army recruiters found 8,756 new recruits for active-duty service last month, surpassing their stated target of 8,600 -- marking the 13th consecutive month the service met or exceeded its target. The active Army now has 51,612 new recruits, and it hopes to sign up a total of 80,000 new recruits by the end of the 2006 budget year on Sept. 30.
The Navy in June met its goal of 3,961 recruits for that month. The Marine Corps and the Air Force exceeded their recruiting objectives, signing up 4,357 and 2,564 service members, respectively. The Reserve and National Guard components of the services met or surpassed their recruiting goals last month, except for the Navy Reserve, which recruited 95 percent of its target.
To allow more recruits to join, the Army last fall amended its rule that it can sign up no more than 2 percent of recruits who score between 15 and 30 out of 99 on the Army's aptitude test. Now, up to 4 percent of Army recruits can score under 30 on the aptitude test, which measures such things as the applicants' knowledge of mathematics and command of the English language, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman.
He said the Army will have "less than 4 percent" of recruits who scored under 30 by the end of the year, but did not elaborate. In 2005, 1.8 percent of the soldiers the Army signed up scored between 15 and 30 percent.
"We're being held up to an impossibly high standard," Hilferty said.
At the same time, in the first four months of this year, the percentage of recruits whom the Army otherwise considers fit for service but who required special waivers to join rose to 15.5 percent. The waivers were for misdemeanor offenses, drug- or alcohol-related violations or medical problems, Hilferty said. In 2004, 12 percent of recruits required such waivers; in 2005, 15 percent needed them.
Hilferty said Army recruiters have "an aggressive mental health program" consisting of tests and checkups intended to weed out applicants with mental health problems or personality disorders -- which Green is reported to have -- during either recruiting or at basic training.
But not all behavioral problems can be spotted during these tests, experts warn -- and some may only emerge under the extreme stress of war.
"It's actually very easy for people like Steven Green to get into the military, because he is a reasonably intelligent, physically fit young man whose emotions are not close to the surface," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
"Many of the qualities that would make you a problem in the civilian society are welcomed in the military. For example, a highly aggressive young man is precisely what the Marines are looking for ... particularly in the enlisted ranks," Thompson said.
Some experts said that regardless of how strict the criteria are during recruiting, it is impossible to completely prevent people with personality disorders from getting into the military.
"You're talking about weeding out 1 in half a million. That's very difficult," said Thomas Mahnken, an expert on the military at Johns Hopkins University.
Last year, the Army discharged 1,038 soldiers because of various personality disorders, Hilferty said. But it is unclear how many of these soldiers had developed the disorders before they signed up for military service, and whether they could have been prevented from joining the Army at the recruiting stage, he said.
Still, some critics say recruiters, pressed to fill the ranks amid wartime shortfalls, may ignore signs that a few of their recruits fail to measure up to military requirements.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors racist and right-wing militia groups, reported this month that thousands of white supremacists may have infiltrated the military, taking advantage of loosened recruiting standards.
"Over the last several years, there has been a lot of pressure, and ... some of the recruiters have turned a blind eye," said Mark Potok, who works at the center. The Pentagon declared a zero-tolerance policy for racist hate groups in 1996.
The Army has not responded to the center's report.
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle