'Redefining' Quality Among Army Recruits

Special exemptions used to fill quotas have led to recruits who would once have been disqualified. Illustrating the issue: Steven Green, accused of raping and killing an Iraqi girl and murdering her family.

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When Steven Green joined the U.S. Army last year, he enlisted as a high school dropout, one who'd racked up three misdemeanor convictions by the time he was 19. He is now accused of the brutal rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family. Turns out that Steven Green was one of the recruits the Army accepted last year, despite problems in their backgrounds that normally would have disqualified them.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

This week, the Army reported it's meeting its goal for recruiting enough new soldiers so far this year. It also reported another number has continued to stay high, the share of recruits being accepted despite a criminal history, or drug or alcohol use, or a medical problem. To let them in, the Army granted a special exemption, or a waiver, to 5,636 recruits in the first four months of this year. That's a little more than 15 percent of new recruits for that period.

The number of recruits with waivers has grown steadily since 2001. Last year, Steven Green was in that group. Green dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. By the time he enlisted, he'd earned a high school equivalency degree. He'd also pled no contest to a misdemeanor, possession of drug paraphernalia, when he was 16. In the Army that crime alone requires a special exemption to be admitted. He got slapped with a second charge, possessing tobacco as a minor.

Then on January 31, 2005, Green was arrested for illegally having alcohol. He served four days in jail. Days later, Green raised his hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. He joined the Army in February, considered one of the toughest months to recruit. And he joined in a year when the Army was under the greatest pressure to meeting its recruiting goals in decades.

Army officials won't talk about their decision to admit Steven Green. They say that would violate Green's privacy. The Army discharged Green for a personality disorder two months after an Iraqi girl was raped and murdered near Mahmoudiya. Her parents and 5-year-old sister were also murdered. Steven Green has now been charged with those crimes in federal court. He's pled not guilty.

Ted Stroop is a retired Army general who headed Army personnel during the first Persian Gulf War. He says you can't tell from Green's record alone that he didn't belong in the Army.

General TED STROOP (Army, Retired): And I think if you got the Army to talk to you in details about him, and ran a paper trace, you probably found that there was probably some senior level decisions by lieutenant colonels and senior sergeants that this young man is worth taking a chance on.

LEWIS: Lawrence Korb handled manpower issues for the Pentagon under President Reagan. Korb says you can tell a lot from someone with Steven Green's background. It has two red flags: leaving high school and lawbreaking.

Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Former Assistant Secretary of Defense): I think what it says is you're asking for trouble, because people who drop out of high school are the type of people who might drop out of the Army when the thing gets tough. And the other is the fact that he or she has had problems with the law, is an indication that they could have some behavioral problems.

LEWIS: At a press briefing this past week, a reporter asked Defense Undersecretary David Chu whether the Army was accepting inferior recruits.

Mr. DAVID CHU (Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, Defense Department): No is the short answer.

LEWIS: Ted Stroop agrees. He says the changes in the recruiting rules, like the changes that allow more recruits with lower scores on the Army's aptitude test, reflect a more nuanced view of capability, not a sacrifice in standards.

Gen. STROOP: They haven't dropped quality. Quality has been redefined. And I think it's been redefined with intellectual integrity.

LEWIS: Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is a former Army paratrooper, who sits on the Armed Services Committee. He just returned form Iraq. He watched the Army spend decades raising standards of education and personal conduct for its recruits.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Now what has been happening is a very conscious effort to lower standards to meet recruiting goals. And I think you just have to suggest and predict that that would mean there'd be more problematic youngsters in the service. Now, I don't think at this juncture it represents a decisive weakening of the force, but it's something that has to be admitted.

LEWIS: Reed says privately there's a lot of concern about standards now inside the Army. He says don't forget, today's Army leaders were young officers in the glory years when the slogan was Be All You Can Be.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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