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U.S. Army lowers recruit standards

Change points to difficulty in retaining troops

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WASHINGTON — To help meet its recruiting goals at a time when its forces are strained by the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has lowered some requirements for new recruits.

The changes are one of the clearest signs to emerge of the military's growing problems in recruiting and retaining soldiers. They mean that a few thousand recruits who would have been rejected in the past could be enlisted this year.

Army officials characterized the changes as modest and well within Pentagon and congressionally mandated quality standards. But the shift represents the first relaxation in Army recruiting standards since 1998, when the strong economy was hurting military recruiting.

Army officials said that for the new recruiting year that started this week, at least 90 percent of new recruits must be high-school graduates, compared with 92 percent last year. As many as 2 percent of recruits will be enlisted even if they scored in the lowest acceptable range on a service aptitude test, compared with 1.5 percent last year.

But when spread over the 101,200 incoming soldiers the Army and Army Reserve says it needs to send to boot camp this year, the changes mean as many as 2,000 or so recruits who would previously have been rejected could be enlisted this year.

"In difficult recruiting environments, it is inevitable that either quality standards or recruiting resources be subject to adjustment," said Richard I. Stark Jr., a retired Army colonel who is a military personnel specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies here. "The Army has been forced to adjust to both."

The Army's decision to loosen standards comes amid calls for the House Armed Services Committee to investigate allegations by Iraq war veterans near the end of their enlistments at Fort Carson, Colo., and other Army bases, that they had been forced to choose between re-enlisting or being sent back to Iraq with another unit. Army officials have denied using that possibility to encourage re-enlistment.

In another sign of strains within the Army, more than 35 percent of nearly 3,900 former soldiers mobilized for yearlong assignments in a little-used wartime program have resisted their call-up, seeking delays or exemptions. A handful of the former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve may face criminal charges for failing to report, Army officials said.

Taken together, these issues have energized a bipartisan effort in Congress to increase the size of the Army by 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers, helped fuel calls by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, to enlarge the Army by 40,000 troops, and prompted many lawmakers to warn of a tough road ahead for Army recruiters.

"Recruiting for the United States Army is going to be a major challenge in the days ahead," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said this week. "You are wearing them out."

The Army met most of its goals for the 2004 recruiting year that ended Monday, officials said Thursday. The active-duty Army exceeded its recruiting target of 77,000 soldiers by 587, and the Army Reserve exceeded its goal of 21,200 by 78, according to Douglas Smith, spokesman for Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky. However, the Army National Guard missed its recruiting target of 56,000 soldiers by 5,000, the first time since 1994 that has happened.

The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force all met or exceeded their 2004 recruiting targets, although the Navy and Air Force had less ambitious goals because their services are actually shrinking in size.

One main reason the Army changed its quality standards is that the Army is entering the new 12-month recruiting cycle from one its worst starting points in a decade.

Typically, the Army wants to enter each recruiting cycle with a cushion of incoming volunteers whose entry has been deferred from the previous year — about 35 percent of its overall goal for the year. Several weeks ago, the Army projected that it would reach only 25 percent. But officials said on Thursday the Army is entering this recruiting year with only an 18 percent cushion.

Recruiters are under additional pressure this year to help meet a temporary increase of 30,000 troops in the active-duty force, which is to grow to 512,000 by 2006.

The Army is employing a range of incentives including bonuses, educational benefits and choice base assignments to help meet its recruiting and retention goals, as it typically has during years when it started with so few recruits already identified. In addition, the Army is hiring up to 1,000 new recruiters.

But aides to two Colorado lawmakers, Reps. Diana DeGette, a Democrat, and Joel Hefley, a Republican, said their offices have received calls from several soldiers at Fort Carson, as well as Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Lewis, Wash., complaining of pressure to re-enlist or be deployed to Iraq.

One sergeant at Fort Carson who served nearly a year in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division's Third Brigade, and is scheduled to end his tour in February 2006, said on Thursday he would take his chances on being reassigned rather than re-enlist.

"I can understand we're in a war, and extraordinary things happen in war, but the Army is moving the goal posts on me," the sergeant said in a telephone interview on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for Fort Carson, Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, said a new Army program to create more stable units that will stay together for three years required troops whose tours end before December 2007 to re-enlist, extend their tours, or take no action and possibly be reassigned to another unit.

But Johnson said the Army was looking closely at each soldier's record, and was not using Iraq deployments to boost re-enlistments. "We're not strong-arming anyone," he said.