Jamie Wilson in Washington
Saturday June 4, 2005
The US military has stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army under growing strain as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An internal memo sent to senior commanders said the growing dropout rate was "a matter of great concern" in an army at war. It told officers: "We need your concerted effort to reverse the negative trend. By reducing attrition 1%, we can save up to 3,000 initial-term soldiers. That's 3,000 more soldiers in our formations."
Officially, the memo, reported in the Wall Street Journal and posted on Slate.com, ordered battalion commanders to refer cases of problem soldiers up to brigade level. Military experts warned that the move would make it more difficult to remove poor soldiers and would lower quality in the ranks.
A military spokesman told the Guardian yesterday: "It was merely a question of an additional set of eyes looking at an issue before we release potential recruits."
The Wall Street Journal quoted a battalion commander as saying: "It is the guys on weight control ... school no-shows, drug users, etc, who eat up my time and cause my hair to grey prematurely ... Often they have more than one of these issues simultaneously."
Asked what the new policy meant, John Pike from the thinktank Globalsecurity.org said: "It means there is a war on. They need all the soldiers they can get. But it is a dilemma. You need good soldiers more in wartime than peacetime."
The latest controversy comes amid a growing recruitment and retention crisis in the US military. Last month the army announced that it was 6,659 soldiers short of its recruitment targets for the year so far. On Wednesday, the department of defence withheld the latest figures, a move seen by most commentators as heralding more bad news.
The military's target is 80,000 new recruits this year, but the army only managed 73% of its target in February, 68% in March and 57% in April, forcing the expansion of a pilot programme offering 15-month active duty enlistments, rather than the usual four years.*
The crisis has even led to fears - despite repeated denials by President George Bush - of a return to the draft system that conscripted 1.8 million Americans during the Vietnam war.
Major General Michael Rochelle, the head of army recruitment, said this was the "toughest recruiting climate ever faced by the all-volunteer army", with the war raising concern among potential recruits and their families.
"Recruiters have been given greater leeway," said Mr Pike. "By doing things to increase quantity you are also doing things to decrease quality, but they have made the judgment that that is the way to go."
One recruiting standard that was about to be lowered was a rule governing tattoos in the navy and marines. "If you have excessively prominent and vulgar tattoos they will not take you right now, but that is about to change," he said.
A commander quoted in the Wall Street Journal linked the growing attrition rate among new recruits to a slipping of standards by recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas.
An army spokeswoman said: "We are doing our best to decrease attrition level, but we have not and will not lower our standards for recruiting and retaining soldiers."
Yet in March 17.4% of all new army recruits failed to complete training, while another 7.3% did not finish the first three years with their unit.
Last month it emerged that one recruiter gave advice on how to cheat a mandatory drug test to a potential would-be soldier who said he had a drug problem.
In another incident in Texas, a recruiter threatened a 20-year-old man with arrest if he did not turn up to an interview. As a result all military recruiters stopped work for one day to attend retraining classes on acceptable practices.
* The Army is currently withholding its May figures. That means they've got to be even worse.
Army recruiters becoming desperate