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Facing Recruitment Crisis, US Army Develops Program to Help Aspiring Soldiers Meet Eligibility Requirements

In times of national emergency, the United States military has been far less restrictive in its recruitment policies than it is today.

In fact, during World War II, some noncitizen men who could not provide proof of legal entry to the United States were permitted to enlist.

Also, during World War II, men ages 18 to 64 were eligible to be drafted.

In 2023, the minimum age to enlist in the United States military is 17. The maximum age varies per branch–Marine Corps (28), Coast Guard (31), Army (35), and 39 for the Air Force, Navy, and Space Force.

Strict Eligibility Requirements

As the United States military is facing its biggest recruiting crisis in the 50 years since it became an all-volunteer force with the end of the draft in 1973, receiving considerable attention are its eligibility requirements.

Criticism has long been leveled at the armed forces that the requirements are too strict and that they disqualify many who could serve effectively in defense of their country.

Uncle Sam may be listening.

On March 10, 2022, the Department of Defense amended its Physical Fitness/Composition Program (PF/CP). The change allows each branch, while still needing to adhere to certain standards set for the entire U.S. armed forces, flexibility in setting and arranging its eligibility metrics.

In December, the Navy announced that it had lowered the minimum score that aspiring sailors must attain on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) to enlist.

The Marine Corps has kept its body fat percentage standard the same. But since this past August, the procedure and technology it uses to calculate that percentage will result in more recruits making the grade.

Until recently, those seeking to join the Army with a tattoo on their hand, neck, or behind the ear could serve, but only after receiving a waiver, which could take several weeks.

That policy has changed, with limits. What is allowable for body ink is detailed in a June 23 Army news release: “one tattoo on each hand that does not exceed one inch in length,” and the “option to place one tattoo no larger than two inches on the back of their neck and one, inch-long tattoo behind each ear,” and “tattoos can be impressed between fingers as long as the designs cannot be seen when the fingers are closed.”

Maintaining Army Standards

While the Army may be permitting a little more body art, it maintains that it will not lower recruiting standards to hit its recruiting marks.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 3, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This was the message that Gen. James McConville delivered emphatically and without ambiguity on July 28, when he said, “What I don’t want to do, and we’ve done this historically, is lower standards and convince ourselves that’s the right thing to do. We’re not going to achieve squat.”

And yet the Army, and all the military branches, must deal with the reality, as reported in a Sept. 28 Military.com story citing Pentagon statistics: “77 percent of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.”

The Army has its motivation to put more Americans in uniform.

For the 2022 recruiting year, the Army came up short of its goal, while the Air Force, Navy, and Marines made their numbers, even if just barely.

Space Force, the newest branch of the military, and the smallest, with 1,643 active military personnel, met its recruiting target number.

Now, for sure, the Coast Guard has had four consecutive years of not hitting recruiting goals.

But here comparisons are important. The U.S. Army is by far the largest branch of the military, with about 485,000 active soldiers, compared with the Coast Guard, which has a little more than 41,000 active guardsmen.

Helping Aspiring Soldiers Qualify

An approach that the Army has taken to boost recruiting numbers is to offer aspiring soldiers, who still need to meet the requirements to begin basic training, help in improving physical fitness and conditioning, and increase their aptitude exam scores.

In August, the Army launched the Future Soldier Preparatory Course (FSPC) pilot program at Fort Jackson, S.C., which would, as the Army described in an announcement, “provide education and training to help American youth overcome academic and physical fitness barriers to military service.”

FSPC is not part of basic training but a U.S.-military-run type of prep camp intended to qualify people for basic training.

“The pilot program will provide focused academic and fitness instruction to help recruits meet the Army’s desired accession standards for body fat composition and academic test performance prior to basic training,” said the Army announcement. “It includes two separate tracks: a fitness program and an educational program for recruits who need help improving their scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT).”

Participants are expected to remain at most 90 days in FSPC and have the opportunity every three weeks to move on to basic training if they attain or exceed the enlistment requirements.

Not yet six months into the pilot, the FSPC course is delivering excellent results.

On Jan. 9, the Army reported that a “total of 3,206 students have attended the course as of the end of 2022, of which 2,965 students have already graduated and are continuing to basic combat training.

With the FSPC concept proven successful, the Army announced earlier this month that it will continue and expand the program.

Ross Muscato

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