KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Terrence Hoard must reach potential recruits early to set them straight.
They think anybody can enlist. Many see the military as a last resort in a tough job market — but always an option, the youth assume. Truth is, the Class of 2014 now leaving high school will face more difficulty qualifying for the armed services than ever in the 40-year history of the all-volunteer force.
So Hoard tells them long before graduation day: Don’t ever get caught with a joint. Work out, shed weight. And be extra careful about getting tattooed.
“We’re turning down twice as many as before,” said Hoard, who supervises the Army recruiting station in Grandview. His office several years back needed to sign up 16 to 20 soldiers per month to meet recruiting targets. Now, 10 or 12 will do.
Earlier this month, a dozen fresh recruits and wannabe warriors showed up for push-ups and jumping jacks. Among them: Kyle Bayard of Drexel, Mo., whose lifelong dream of serving was held up for a year because he had been prescribed attention-deficit medicine in high school.
Mauricio Lonza maintained a B average in high school and through a couple of years at Kansas State University. But three times he failed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery before he got a passing score. “Math was never my category,” said Lonza, 21.
On Hoard’s desk were slips bearing the names of four local candidates rejected for having tattoos that crept too low on their forearms. All four were turned down the week after the Army’s tattoo restrictions took effect April 29.
With the United States drawing down its troop numbers from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the active-duty prospects for a generation that grew up in the age of terror aren’t apt to improve, say area recruiters and educators. As it is, about four of every five adults who seek to join don’t qualify.
“All this belt-tightening has caused the Department of Defense to chase after the same successful, highly motivated high school graduates that everyone else is chasing,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Byrd, an instructor for Van Horn High School’s Junior ROTC program in Independence.
“It’s very expensive to recruit,” he added. “We don’t have the flexibility we once had to get it wrong with one kid and hope the next one works out.”
In February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled plans to reduce the Army’s active-duty strength from its current force of 520,000 to 490,000 by autumn 2015.
Should Congress stick with defense funding caps enacted in December as part of a federal sequestration agreement, the Army over the next two years could shrink toward an active-duty force of about 440,000, its smallest since before World War II.
Further shrinkage would be necessary if sequestration fights resume in coming years, Hagel and other defense leaders said.
Jessica L. Wright, acting undersecretary for defense personnel and readiness, recently told U.S. senators that the Pentagon’s budget plan spares only the Navy from force reductions next year.
The Air Force, Marine Corps and military Reserve and Guard units would shrink over the next several years, Wright said, though troop cuts are not expected to be as deep as in the Army, the largest recruiter of all.
What does this spell for America’s young adults, ages 17 to 24, already buffeted by 14 percent unemployment and ever-soaring college costs?
“There’ll be fewer opportunities in military service, as there have been in the overall economy,” Byrd said. And fewer young veterans means less opportunity to have college costs covered by GI benefits.
The Army nationwide is on pace to hit its fiscal year 2014 goal of signing up 57,000 recruits for active duty.
That’s down from about 80,000 new recruits each year from fiscal 2005 through 2008. Only once, in 2005, did Army recruiters fail to hit their mark.
In those years, much of their recruiting success was owed to commanders granting waivers for conduct and health issues that, in peacetime, would keep candidates out of the military. Only 86 percent of new recruits at the height of the war in Iraq had completed high school. Many with felony convictions were allowed in.
Today, 99 percent of recruits have graduated from high school. The military branches expect higher scores in the ASVAB test, which quizzes candidates on tools and electrical circuitry as well as on language and math. Even a past misdemeanor may disqualify a potential recruit.
“It’s not that we have a zero-defect mentality, because we don’t,” said Nathan Christensen, a Navy officer in public affairs for the Defense Department. “But it is true that the quality of military recruits right now is the highest it’s been in 40 years.”
Many potential recruits don’t know that. They’re out of luck when they show up at Hoard’s recruiting office with drug charges in their background, without a high school diploma or GED, or carrying greater girth than the Army allows.
“Five years ago, if a kid had gotten caught with a (marijuana) joint in his car, that person would be pretty much a shoo-in” to enlist under a waiver, Hoard said. “Now, you’re not authorized.”
Societal trends aren’t helping. As a slumping economy fueled increased interest in military service, a 2009 study by an organization of educators and retired military leaders estimated that 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 were ineligible to enlist.
Obesity alone disqualified 27 percent; many others were ruled out by problems ranging from juvenile crime to unfinished schooling to massive credit card debt, the report said.
A leaner, pickier military sends ripples through the broader economy. Young adults who don’t land meaningful work by age 22, or those unable to tap military benefits for college tuition, are apt to earn less money than they’d otherwise collect for at least a decade into their future, studies have found.
“They call it ‘scarring,’ ” said economist Sarah Ayres of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress. “It’s not just a right-now problem. It’s a problem that lingers years down the road.”
And still, dropouts march to Hoard’s recruiting office expecting to sign up. Teens with stretched piercings in their earlobes, so-called gauges, leave dejected after a recruiter with a flashlight confirms that light shines through the opening, a disqualifying trait.
In recent weeks, tattoos have been the surprise disqualifier.
With the aim of buffing up the appearance of service members in uniform, the Army in April rolled out restrictions on tattoos below the elbows and knees. Only four such tattoos are now allowed, and they must be small enough to be covered by the wearer’s hand.
No tattoos whatsoever on the wrists, hands, neck or head.
One person inquiring at the Grandview recruitment station last week had an engagement band tattooed around her ring finger.
Others had tattoos that extended below the cuffs of long-sleeved shirts, or above the collar. Also out.
Roger Lawrence of Archie, Mo., was 16 when he got a forearm tattoo reflecting his Christian beliefs. “I was way younger and not thinking about anything,” said Lawrence, now 19 and eager to serve.
“The recruiter asked me to try covering it with my hand. It was 2 inches too big.”
Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., has told recruiters to monitor and report back on how the new restrictions affect enlistments.
“It’s tough to look a fine candidate in the face and tell them they can’t serve their country” because of a wrist tattoo, Hoard said.
In other cases, such as with Bayard, 20, the candidate will show his or her mettle taking steps to qualify. When the Army informed him he needed to be medication-free for a year before enlisting, “I went cold turkey” from his ADD pills, Bayard said. “It was easy.”
Twice a week during his wait, Bayard attended workouts at the recruiting station. He sweated off 40 pounds and learned to recite the Soldier’s Creed from memory, all 121 words.
He’s headed to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training.
“Bayard’s one of those destined to be in special forces,” Staff Sgt. Danielle Colson predicted. “You can just tell.”