WASHINGTON - The faltering US economy is fueling a dramatic turnaround in military recruiting, with new statistics showing that the Army is experiencing the highest rate of new enlistments in six years.
The Army exceeded its goals each month from October through January - the first quarter of the new fiscal year - for both the active-duty Army and the Army Reserve, according to figures compiled by the US Army Recruiting Command.
Officials said it is the first time since the first quarter of fiscal year 2003, before the start of the Iraq War, that the Army has started out its recruiting year on such a high note.
In recent years the Army either missed its initial goals or barely met them, and was forced to accept increasing percentages of recruits who either did not graduate from high school, scored in the lowest category on the armed forces qualification test, or required a waiver for past criminal activity.
Those trends had sparked deep concern that the largest branch of the armed forces was headed for a crisis in quality at a time when it is expanding the size of the overall force.
The latest recruiting outlook "is good news in the nick of time," said Beth Asch, a senior economist specializing in military manpower studies at the government-funded Rand Corporation.
Citing historical trends, Asch and other specialists predict that quality will improve along with the numbers, including the share of new recruits who have earned high school diplomas and scored high on entrance exams.
The Army has long had a goal of ensuring that at least 90 percent of new recruits have high-school diplomas - considered a key measure of competence and commitment. But in recent years the percentage of enlistees who completed high school has dropped below 80 percent.
The recruiting command, based at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, does not compile statistics on the quality of new recruits until the end of the fiscal year, so such information about recent enlistees is not yet available.
But Asch, who frequently advises the Pentagon on demographic trends, thinks the Army has reason to be hopeful.
"What the enlistment models would predict is there would be an increase in high-quality enlistment," said Asch.
Alan Gropman, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington who specializes in military recruiting, agreed. "They have more people to choose from and they will choose better people," he said.
Another factor that may be driving the recent gains, specialists said, is the improved situation in Iraq and the expectation that US military involvement in the war will be winding down - thus decreasing the likelihood that a new recruit would be deployed there.
On Friday, President Obama announced a plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by August 2010.
A recent study by researchers at Clemson University concluded that the Iraq war was a major factor in the steep drop in enlistments, especially among the most highly qualified potential recruits. The 2007 study found that the Iraq war had "reduced Army high-quality enlistments by one-third, after controlling for other factors."
"If you extrapolate, this Iraq affect will disappear and presumably there will be a reversal of that and there will be an increase in enlistment," said Asch.
But the dominant factor driving more people to consider Army careers appears to be the steady rise in the unemployment rate across the country. Since September, the unemployment rate nationwide has increased from roughly 6.2 percent to 7.6 percent, a rise of more than 20 percent, according to government figures.
Government studies in recent decades have indicated that for every 10 percent increase in unemployment there is usually a 5 percent boost in military recruiting.
"Typically a bad economy has worked to the benefit of the military," said retired Navy Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, currently the dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.
So far this fiscal year, the Army's recruiting numbers show a steady improvement in every month. The Army exceeded its goal by 293 in October, 730 in November, 429 in December, and 706 in January for a total of 2,158.
"It was our best [period] in six years, in that we achieved our monthly missions [in] both active and Reserve each month," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the recruiting command. "We know that historically an increase in the civilian unemployment rate has resulted in an increase in Army enlistments."
Indeed, it appears that the sagging economy is helping all the branches of the military, not just the Army, which has borne the brunt of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In February, the Defense Department released figures showing that for the month of January all branches of the active-duty military met or exceeded their recruiting goals. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also met or exceeded their goal of re-enlisting current members.
In the Reserve corps, only the Army National Guard did not meet its January goal, but remained "well ahead" of its annual goal to date, the Pentagon reported.
But while a bad economy is usually a boon for military recruiting, Hutson warns that the Pentagon still must closely monitor who it is bringing into the ranks.
People who are joining the ranks for purely economic reasons may not make the best soldiers, he said - especially when the economy turns around and they discover that they still must complete their service.
"The military has to be very careful about the motivation of the people it is bringing into the force," said Hutson. "Military service is hard work. It is not easy to serve well and honorably. Motivation has to be very good. If your motivation is you can't get a job anywhere else that is not necessarily the motivation they are looking for."