Army Opens its Doors to Recruits Who Fail to Meet Initial Body Fat and Academic Standards Amid Recruiting Crisis

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Soldiers conduct a foot marchat Fort Sill.
Soldiers conduct a foot march to a weapons qualification range May 6, 2020, at Fort Sill. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Dustin D. Biven)

The Army is giving new recruits who exceed body fat standards or failed academic entrance standards a chance to serve as the service faces a daunting recruiting crisis.

In August, the service is set to launch two pilot programs at Fort Jackson, South Carolina: one for recruits who are slightly too overweight to serve and another for those who did not score high enough on the SAT-style exam required to enlist.

New enlistees who exceed body fat standards by as much as 6% will be placed into a training program for up to 90 days that includes exercise and dietary training. Every three weeks, the recruit may have their body fat measured and, if they can get to only 2% over the Army's limit, they will be allowed to move on to basic training.

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Only about 23% of young Americans are eligible for military service, with many potential recruits ineligible because of their weight.

A separate academic camp, also up to 90 days long, is for recruits who score between 21 and 30 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. A 31 is needed to qualify for any job in the Army. Lower scores tend to place soldiers in combat arms or roles that are generally less technical. Higher scores typically qualify troops for roles such as administrative and intelligence jobs. Soldiers have the opportunity to retake the ASVAB every three weeks as part of the program. During the camp, soldiers will receive extra schooling on topics covered by the ASVAB, which include literacy, high school-level math and logic puzzles.

"The young men and women who will participate in this pilot have the desire to improve themselves and want to honorably serve their country," Gen. Paul Funk II, the commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command, said in a press release. "[It's] a great way to increase opportunities for them to serve without sacrificing the quality needed across our force."

The two programs, which are projected to cost $4 million over the next year, are only for soldiers who otherwise qualify for service. New recruits can go to only one -- meaning if they are both overweight and fail to meet that Army's academic standards, they cannot enlist. Failing to meet the Army’s standards after either camp can lead to the soldier’s removal from the service, but the Army can still make exceptions.

However, soldiers who score low, but pass the ASVAB with a score between 42 and 49, can do both programs, though the academic camp wouldn't be required. Going through the camp and retaking the test would be an opportunity for the soldiers to boost their score and qualify for more jobs in the Army.

So far, the Army has identified 2,000 new recruits who may participate in one of the programs.

The news comes after a memo was issued last week to the force from Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth that painted a grim picture of ongoing struggles the force faces in attracting new talent, with little optimism for near-term fixes. Because of the recruiting crisis, the pair said they anticipate the size of the active-duty Army to shrink from 466,400 to roughly 452,000 by the end of next year.

"The Army is making every effort to overcome these challenges, but we will not overcome them overnight," the memo said.

Yet while the service struggles to bring people in, it has been able to maintain its current flock of soldiers. As of July 7, it exceeded its retention goal of keeping 55,900 soldiers who were due to leave the service, reenlisting 57,738 of them, according to Army data. The Army National Guard last year even halted reenlistment bonuses because so many part-time soldiers decided to continue their service.

The service has scrambled in recent months to make whatever simpler changes to recruiting rules it can to help at the margins, including relaxing its tattoo policy, offering historically high enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000, and allowing recruits to pick their first duty station of choice, with limitations. The service also briefly allowed applicants to enlist without a high school diploma, but that effort was scrubbed after only a week due to backlash over a perceived lowering of standards.

A top concern is the greater scrutiny of potential recruits' medical backgrounds. In March, the Defense Department launched MHS Genesis, which can show the military some applicants' medical and mental health records -- such as being prescribed antidepressants or suffering minor injuries during high school sports, which can slam the brakes on the recruiting process. That database includes all records tied to the military and veterans health systems, which would include records of military dependents. Roughly 30% of recruits have a parent who served. The system also includes medical records from organizations who sign up for the Joint Health Information Exchange, which includes civilian health providers.

Previously, applicants were required to self-report their backgrounds, with recruiters sometimes coaching them to omit minor details that might make enlisting difficult.

Another struggle the service faces is a lack of a call to arms with no major conflict or events spurring young Americans to recruiting stations. Army officials have long pointed to the competitive civilian job market, but the service still outpaces most entry-level jobs by offering free college, cheap and easy access to health care, and powerful VA home loan benefits.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the detail that some recruits who still do not meet the Army standard ASVAB score for entrance into the service after the new academic camp will nonetheless be selected to serve. The headline was also changed to specify that the recruits sent to these extra training camps are initially failing to meet Army standards.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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