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A pilot program at the Army's Fort Jackson near Columbia, South Carolina, is offering high school dropouts a chance to earn their GED in exchange for their service. The Army hopes this move will keep its enlistment numbers steady as it fights two wars abroad.
From member station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina, Peter Biello reports.
PETER BIELLO: Twenty-eight-year-old William Kamicka dropped out of high school more than 10 years ago. He wanted to join the military but his family talked him out of it. So the Columbiaville, Michigan, native got a job. He eventually found work at a gift shop, where he met his wife. They got married; now, they have four kids. Kamicka says having a family made it hard for him to get his GED.
Mr. WILLIAM KAMICKA: I'd eat up any overtime that I could get my hands on, you know, just to get that extra dollar, so that interfered a lot with my GED classes at Michigan. And so I never really got to finish.
BIELLO: Then a few months ago, as Michigan's economy tanked, Kamicka and his wife lost their jobs. He went on unemployment and searched for a new job. But without a diploma, he couldn't even find work at a fast-food restaurant. So he tried to join the military.
Mr. KAMICKA: The Navy, Air Force and Marines wouldn't accept me. The Army had said, well, you know, we'll pay for your GED, so you know, you get it, and then you can come join.
BIELLO: The Army's new preparatory school at Fort Jackson made that possible by providing free GED classes in exchange for service in the Army. Since its creation last August, the school has helped more than a thousand recruits earn their GED.
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BIELLO: Along with classroom instruction, these recruits also get a taste of the rigors of Army life.
(Soundbite of drill)
BIELLO: Every morning before sunrise, these soldiers exercise on a campus about the size of a city block. The rest of the day, they're in class. Captain Brian Gaddis is the commanding officer of the school. Gaddis says three things will keep you out of the Army: physical limitations, a criminal history, or an incomplete high school education.
Mr. BRIAN GADDIS (Commanding Officer): We can't change someone's medical background; we can't change somebody's criminal past. But we can change their education and oh, by the way, we can do it in four weeks or less.
BIELLO: Gaddis says nearly all students, who range in age from 17 to 41, pass the GED within six weeks. He credits the high success rate to discipline and the removal of distractions. Gaddis says 10 percent of the students tried to get a GED before they joined.
Mr. GADDIS: And if you talk to them, many of them weren't able to complete it because they weren't able to devote the time to it due to, you know, needing to pay bills or family issues. So what we do here, we take all the distracters away.
BIELLO: Not everybody thinks going to the Army for a free GED is the way to go. Arlene Inouye runs the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, based in Los Angeles. She says the Army is luring vulnerable, often low-income people into dangerous combat situations with the promise of a free education.
Ms. ARLENE INOUYE (Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools): They look like the savior and the white knight, you know, coming to rescue them, but in reality they're using these young people to get their bodies.
BIELLO: But Captain Brian Gaddis says not all of the students are from low-income families, and not every soldier will see combat. He says every soldier does receive great health benefits, steady pay, and tuition assistance that many couldn't find in the civilian world.
Mr. GADDIS: The Army does need what it needs from you, but it gives you so much back in return that it's almost criminal to call it exploitive.
(Soundbite of drill)
BIELLO: At one of the weekly graduation ceremonies, 57 graduates shake hands with Captain Gaddis and other school commanders.
Mr. GADDIS: Congratulations.
Mr. KAMICKA: Thank you, sir.
BIELLO: Private William Kamicka passed the GED exam after less than two weeks of classes. Now he'll be sent to basic training, making room for the next new student-soldier.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Biello.