Army upbeat on recruit numbers

It exceeded its goal by 156 enlistees last month. Critics question some standards.

With the release of new recruiting figures Monday, the Army provided its firmest evidence yet that it has found an answer to last year's recruiting crisis.

In June, the Army exceeded its recruiting goal for the 13th consecutive month, keeping it on track to meet its annual target of 80,000 by Sept. 30 – the end of the recruiting year. As the largest monthly goal this year, June provided the greatest test of the Army's string of successes.

"We're doing better this year, and it looks like we will be able to meet our goal," says Lt. Col. Brian Hilferty, a spokesman for Army recruiting.

Army officials attribute the turnaround to 1,000 additional recruiters on the street and bigger bonuses for new enlistees. But critics contend that the Army has also begun to lower its standards, letting in less-qualified recruits as well as gang members and extremists.

A year ago, there were questions about whether the Army was recruiting enough new soldiers to maintain the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army finished the recruiting year 6,627 recruits below its target – the first time it missed its annual goal since 1999. Though the Army has made its goals each of the past 12 months, doubts remained about whether that would continue through the summer.

Throughout the first eight months of this recruiting year, which began last October, the Army made its monthly targets in part by significantly lowering the bar. This year, recruiters had to sign up 8,000 fewer recruits from October through May than they did the previous year.

Yet the Army has the same annual goal as it did in fiscal year 2005, meaning it has to make up the difference in the last four months of the recruiting year – from June though September. The reason for the change: recruiting is better during the summer months when school is out.

The announcement that the Army recruited 8,756 new soldiers in June – topping its goal by 156 – suggests that the change is working. The massive July goal of 10,450 recruits will provide another test, but new recruiters have helped get the Army this far, says Colonel Hilferty. So have new bonuses for recruits and for current and former service members who refer them to the military. Raising the age limit for first-time recruits from 35 to 42 has brought in a "couple hundred" enlistees, says Hilferty.

At the same time, however, critics suggest that the Army has lowered its entrance requirements. In October, for instance, 12 percent of the Army's recruits were so-called Category 4 recruits – those who have the lowest acceptable score on the Army aptitude test. The goal is for Category 4 recruits to make up no more than 4 percent of an annual recruiting class. Though he did not offer numbers, Hilferty insisted: "At the end of the year, we will be below 4 percent."

Other reports claim that gang graffiti has begun to show up in Iraq, and that white supremacists are joining the Army – in part to bring those skills back to their civilian lives. The Army maintains that it continues to enforce guidelines against extremists and gang members, and some experts are skeptical of how widespread the problem might be.

"I would be very surprised if the numbers are significant," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization in College Park, Md.

Yet a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism in America, suggests that the Army's numbers crunch has led to at least some drop in vigilance. "I wouldn't say it's a substantial part of the 80,000," says Mark Potok of the center's Intelligence Project. "But I don't think there's any question that standards have been eased by some recruiters and some commanders."

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