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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

Let's start with the good news about army recruiting: after years of war, the military still hasn't needed a draft, but as the years go on it's getting harder to find qualified volunteers. And documents obtained by NPR suggests that U.S. Army recruiting is not going as well as in the past.

INSKEEP: The Army is meeting its goals for the total number of soldiers signed up. But the documents show the Army accepting more recruits without high school diplomas and more with criminal or medical problems, among other problems. NPR's Tom Bowman has been following this story and brought us this sheath of documents here. Tom, and what are we looking at here?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Steve, this is a briefing given by the Army to Defense Secretary Gates back at the end of January. And it's very interesting. It shows the rate of waivers for criminal and medical problems granted over the past several years. For example, for serious misdemeanors, there were about 3,000 waivers back in 2005. Last year in 2007, it was about 8,200.

INSKEEP: So, you've got thousands of people who might not have gotten in before who are getting in now with criminal records. You've also got - let me look at the chart here that shows that back in the early 90s basically 100 percent of the enlistees accepted into the United States Army had a high school diploma, and it's now gone down to 79 percent.

BOWMAN: Exactly, that's right. That's a real problem because a high school diploma, recruiters see that as an indicator of success, of stick-to-itiveness, of completing training and actually becoming a better soldier. So, that's something they've watched for years and they're really concerned about it.

INSKEEP: So, how concerned is the Army that they're scraping the bottom of the barrel? That they're getting recruits who are not ready for the high-tech warfare they're being thrown into?

BOWMAN: There's great concern about it, and they want to try to bring in more high school diploma grads. They want to keep these waivers down as much as they can. But they're creeping up, again, by the hundreds, if not thousands.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to come back to that notion of the criminal waiver. That's the classic story of how you get in the Army. You get in trouble as a kid in school and the judge says, well, you can go to jail or you can join the Army. You're suggesting basically that's happening again on a larger and larger scale across the country. Thousands of people going to the military - not being forced by a judge necessarily - but going with a criminal background.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Is it necessarily bad? Do these people always make bad soldiers?

BOWMAN: Well, it's funny because they did an analysis of these waivers, both for medical problems and criminal problems, and they found something very interesting. They found, for example, that those with criminal waivers and medical waivers tend to do better in recruit training. They tend to finish recruit training. They tend to make sergeant faster, they tend to reenlist at higher rates and they tend to, interestingly, get more awards for valor than those without waivers.

So that's really interesting. On the other hand, though, they tend to desert in greater numbers, they tend to have misconduct problems in greater numbers, and they fail out of alcohol rehab in greater numbers than those without the waivers. So, it's sort of a double-edged sword.

And clearly the Army is going to have to sort of calibrate how they bring these waiver folks in to make sure that they get those who are successful, who make sergeant better, as opposed to those who become deserters.

INSKEEP: Now, we're looking at a document here that you said was presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates by people from the U.S. Army. I wonder, in your conversations with people, if you get a sense of the conclusions that go along with all these statistics. Does the Army think that a year from now, or three years from now, or five years from now - they're going to have the numbers of qualified people that they need to do everything they're being asked to do?

BOWMAN: Not necessarily. And there's a real worry that as these people rise up the ranks, maybe become sergeant, will that be the best sergeant you have or is this some guy that's really not going to be as good as you had maybe ten, twenty years ago.

INSKEEP: Is part of the problem just that the military is expanding, the Army especially, expanding and getting in more recruits all the time?

BOWMAN: That's part of it. They're trying to grow the Army during war time, during an unpopular war. So, some of the best recruits, they're deciding not to come into the Army.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can get a look at portions of this U.S. Army presentation for yourself. Just go to our Web site, NPR.org.

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