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It's tougher than ever to qualify for Army service

Kyle Bayard, 20, struggles to remain in position during a stationary push-up during physical exercise in the parking lot behind the Army recruiting station in Grandview, Mo., on May 6.

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By The Kansas City Star
Saturday, May 17, 2014, 5:36 p.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Terrence Hoard must reach potential recruits early to set them straight.

They think anybody can enlist. Many see the military as a last resort in a tough job market — but always an option, the youth assume. Truth is, the Class of 2014 now leaving high school will face more difficulty qualifying for the armed services than ever in the 40-year history of the all-volunteer force.

So Hoard tells them long before graduation day: Don't ever get caught with a joint. Work out, shed weight. And be extra careful about getting tattooed.

“We're turning down twice as many as before,” said Hoard, who supervises the Army recruiting station in Grandview. His office several years back needed to sign up 16 to 20 soldiers per month to meet recruiting targets. Now, 10 or 12 will do.

Earlier this month, a dozen fresh recruits and wannabe warriors showed up for push-ups and jumping jacks. Among them: Kyle Bayard of Drexel, Mo., whose lifelong dream of serving was held up for a year because he had been prescribed attention-deficit medicine in high school.

Mauricio Lonza maintained a B average in high school and through a couple of years at Kansas State University. But three times he failed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery before he got a passing score. “Math was never my category,” said Lonza, 21.

On Hoard's desk were slips bearing the names of four local candidates rejected for having tattoos that crept too low on their forearms. All four were turned down the week after the Army's tattoo restrictions took effect April 29.

With the United States drawing down its troop numbers from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the active-duty prospects for a generation that grew up in the age of terror aren't apt to improve, say area recruiters and educators. As it is, about four of every five adults who seek to join don't qualify.

“All this belt-tightening has caused the Department of Defense to chase after the same successful, highly motivated high school graduates that everyone else is chasing,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Byrd, an instructor for Van Horn High School's Junior ROTC program in Independence.

“It's very expensive to recruit,” he added. “We don't have the flexibility we once had to get it wrong with one kid and hope the next one works out.”

In February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled plans to reduce the Army's active-duty strength from its current force of 520,000 to 490,000 by autumn 2015.

Should Congress stick with defense funding caps enacted in December as part of a federal sequestration agreement, the Army over the next two years could shrink toward an active-duty force of about 440,000, its smallest since before World War II.

Further shrinkage would be necessary if sequestration fights resume in coming years, Hagel and other defense leaders said.

What does this spell for America's young adults, ages 17 to 24, already buffeted by 14 percent unemployment and ever-soaring college costs?

“There'll be fewer opportunities in military service, as there have been in the overall economy,” Byrd said. And fewer young veterans means less opportunity to have college costs covered by GI benefits.

The Army is on pace to hit its fiscal year 2014 goal of signing up 57,000 recruits for active duty.

That's down from about 80,000 new recruits each year from fiscal 2005 through 2008. Only once, in 2005, did Army recruiters fail to hit their mark.

In those years, much of their recruiting success was owed to commanders granting waivers for conduct and health issues that, in peacetime, would keep candidates out of the military. Only 86 percent of new recruits at the height of the war in Iraq had completed high school. Many with felony convictions were allowed in.

Today, 99 percent of recruits have graduated from high school. The military branches expect higher scores in the ASVAB test, which quizzes candidates on tools and electrical circuitry as well as on language and math. Even a past misdemeanor may disqualify a potential recruit.

“It's not that we have a zero-defect mentality, because we don't,” said Nathan Christensen, a Navy officer in public affairs for the Defense Department. “But it is true that the quality of military recruits right now is the highest it's been in 40 years.”

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