U.S. Army Recruits Offered Waivers for Past Crimes

The U.S. Army is offering "recruiting waivers" to admit potential soldiers who would be normally barred because of past criminal offenses. Madeleine Brand speaks with Tom Bowman, military affairs correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, about his article on the waivers and the U.S. Army's problems with recruiting new soldiers.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up a star US skier's bad day at the Winter Olympics. Bode Miller is out of the combined Alpine race.

BRAND: But first got a criminal record, got drug or alcohol problems? Well there may be a place for you in the United States Army. The Baltimore Sun reports today that desperate to fill the ranks, the Army is admitting people now it would have barred in the past. And joining me now is Baltimore Sun Reporter Tom Bowman. Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. TOM BOWMAN (Military Affairs Correspondent, The Baltimore Sun): Hi.

BRAND: Mr. Bowman, give me some figures. What is the increase in these so-called recruiting waivers?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, the percentage has increased steadily since 2001 when 10 percent of recruits, Army recruits received waivers for everything from misdemeanors to drug or alcohol problems also serious criminal misconduct. And it's gone up to 15 percent in 2005, in it's tracking for the same if not higher for 2006.

BRAND: What is serious criminal misconduct?

Mr. BOWMAN: The Army defines that as aggravated assault, vehicular manslaughter, robbery, terrorist threat, receiving stolen property or too driving under the influence.

BRAND: And the Army has determined that these people now don't pose a problem?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, the Army says they're looking at the whole person, that people may have made mistakes in the past and they believe that these people can be good recruits and eventually become good soldiers.

BRAND: And tell us about the drug and alcohol problems. What kind of waivers is the Army giving for those infractions?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, that has interestingly gone down since 2001, when it was 1,300 and now it's about 737 in 2005,the last date when we had statistics. But they would do is when a recruit comes in for a urinalysis test before they go into the recruiting pool, and they test positive for amphetamines, marijuana or cocaine, you would get a waiver to have another test. You'd have to wait 45 days to go for another test.

BRAND: And then they, presumably, would have to be clean otherwise?

Mr. BOWMAN: Exactly, they would have to be clean, and then they would be accepted into the recruiting pool.

BRAND: Now you had the largest group of waivers was for medical problems such as flat feet and asthma. So those seem relatively minor on the scale of medical problems. Is it possible that they were just antiquated notions of criteria for exclusion?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well no one really got into that with me. Besides asthma and flat feet, and so forth, they also have a category for let's say if you broke a leg and you had pins in your leg or a plate. As long as you had a good range of motion, they would let you into the recruiting pool.

BRAND: That's pretty serious.

Mr. BOWMAN: Well again you would have to have a range of motion. You couldn't be inhibited in your movements, lifting weights let's say and so forth. Lifting a heavy pack so the medical officer would have to sign off on that.

BRAND: And does the Army admit that it is lowering standards?

Mr. BOWMAN: It does not. But there are certain number of officers both active duty and retired who are very worried about this. They see it as one more indication that they are lowering standards.

And this comes following increasing the age limit for recruits from 35 to 40. And also they're bringing in twice as many recruits who scored low on their Army aptitude test. They've doubled that percentage from two percent to four percent. So those folks--Barry McCaffery, for example, the retired Army general and others say that you're bringing in flawed recruits. And the problem is these recruits tend to wash out faster during basic training, and also they tend to leave for whatever reason during their first term of enlistment, the first three or four years, because of discipline problems and so forth.

BRAND: And what are the long term consequences for the Army.

Mr. BOWMAN: Again the long term consequences would be you're wasting money on these recruits, because they don't make it to become full fledged soldiers. The other is the worry that McCaffery and others have that these will be flawed soldiers and flawed noncommissioned officer sergeants once they stay in the Army and rise up through the ranks. You won't have the quality that perhaps you had in the past.

BRAND: And is the concern also that once they get to places like Iraq, they just will not perform as well as other recruits?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, that's exactly right. And the war you're seeing today in Iraq takes someone with a lot of maturity, good judgment and so forth when you're patrolling a place like let's say Fallujah, and you're knocking on the door of a house and you want to treat the people in the house in a decent way. If you have someone that doesn't have the maturity, maybe has criminal past or other problems, that person could create an international incident right away.

BRAND: Tom Bowman is a reporter for the "Baltimore Sun" and his article on the Army's new recruiting standards is in today's paper. Tom Bowman, thank you.

Mr. BOWMAN: Thank you.

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