At a time when dependence upon our military for safeguarding the nation and our freedoms is increasing, it’s disconcerting to learn that an increasing number of young people are ineligible for our armed services. The reasons are manifold, and often overlapping, but most of them boil down to behavioral obstacles. Many more who wish to join the armed services would be allowed if they made better choices. The same kinds of issues often limit opportunities, even outside of the military.
The military’s prime recruiting age is 17-24 years of age, and according to data released by the Pentagon, over 2/3 of young Americans in that demographic would not be eligible for service. By far the greatest reason for ineligibility is obesity, but other reasons for disqualification include physical appearance, physical health, lack of educational preparedness, police records, and drug use. There are over 34 million young people who would qualify by age, but a full 71% of them would be declined if they applied.
Enlistment requirements vary slightly depending on the branch of the military, but the candidates must be between 17-34 years of age; have a high school diploma or GED with some college credits; have no felony convictions; no persistent illegal drug use; no insulin-dependent diabetes; meet height/weight standards for their age group; be a U.S. citizen or foreign national with legal status; have no ADHD medication for the 12 months preceding application; have no ear gauges and no tattoos on the fingers, head, or hands.
Every year approximately 180,000 new recruits, or about .5% of the prime recruitment-age applicants are added to our military branches. If all other requirements are met, they must also pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which provides an assessment of their English, math, and science skills, as well as their cognitive abilities. According to the Pentagon, about a quarter of applicants, who have graduated from high school, or have their GED, can’t pass the Qualification Test. Major General Allen Youngman says, “They aren’t educationally qualified to join the military in any capacity, not just the high-tech jobs.”
Although the military doesn’t release figures on how many applicants are rejected for service, the Defense Department does indicate that only about 1% of prime recruitment-age young people are both “eligible and inclined to have conversation with” any of the branches of the military. Crunching the numbers indicates only about half of those ultimately are admitted.
Major General Allen Batschelet, who serves as the commanding officer of the Army Recruiting Command, told the Wall Street Journal in June that, “The quality of people willing to serve has been declining rapidly.” Because of this, they have avoided a “zero-defect” mentality, which means they often consider cases individually, which has still allowed them to meet their recruitment objectives in recent years.
There are many, both in the military and out, who see this as a threat to national security. This acknowledgment led to the formation of Mission:Readiness, a nonprofit organization comprised of 450 retired generals and admirals. The group claims that, “Investing early in the upcoming generation is critical to securing our nation’s future. These retired admirals and generals understand that whether young people join the military or not, we must increase investments so that all young people can get the right start and succeed in life – whatever career path they choose. To ensure that we have a strong nation and a secure future, we need to help America’s youth succeed academically, stay physically fit, and abide by the law.”
Retired Major Gen. Allen Youngman, speaking on behalf of “Mission:Readiness, said, “We’re trying to make decision makers see this is a national-security matter—and they need to prioritize it.”
An increasing number of candidates are rejected because of tattoos. Recruiters around the nation are reporting that many recruits don’t advance beyond the initial visit to the recruitment office, since their tattoos are visible and out of compliance with military policy. According to military sources, the objective behind the tattoo guidelines is to maintain a “professional-looking Army.”
Here’s where the broader cultural and societal interests of the nation intersect with the military’s objective. The same conduct that precludes so many from joining the military likewise presents obstacles to employment outside of the military. Aren’t all of these qualifiers important whether one intends to join the military or not? Aren’t all potential employers invested in the idea of having well-educated, physically healthy, and professional-looking personnel? Common sense would lead us to believe that the enlisting qualifications for the military are not all that different for life outside of it.
Young people can choose to drop out of high school or approach their educational opportunities cavalierly. They can choose to not be conscientious about their overall health, or disfigure themselves with piercings and gauges, and paint their bodies with tattoos, if they choose to. But they should realize that their future options are limited by doing so. They certainly limit their opportunities with the military, as well as many future potential employers. We can choose what we do, for the most part, but we’d better think through what the consequences and ramifications are.
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].