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Fewer Than One in Three Young Americans Can Join Military


Army recruiters salute during the playing of the national anthem at the change of command ceremony for the Jackson, Miss., March 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Army recruiters salute during the playing of the national anthem at the change of command ceremony for the Jackson, Miss., March 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended, and Congress has ordered the military to reduce troop levels. But the United States Army -- and other military services -- must continue to recruit new soldiers, and it is having trouble finding enough people who are qualified.

The Army tells VOA “changes in society have decreased the number of young people who are eligible to join.”

The U.S. Army plans to reduce its size from 508,000 soldiers to 450,000 by the year 2017. Most new soldiers leave the service after their first enlistment period of three or four years has ended. So the Army must still recruit between 70,000 and 90,000 young Americans every year to reach its target troop level.

People who want to join the Army must be in good physical and mental condition. They must be between the ages of 17 and 34. They must have graduated from high school. They must not have used illegal drugs or have a criminal record. And they may have only small tattoos -- and none on their hands, face, neck or head.

U.S soldiers participate in a NATO exercise in Kosovo.

U.S soldiers participate in a NATO exercise in Kosovo.

​The Department of Defense says 71 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 would not be accepted into one of the nation’s military services if they volunteered. The Army believes that number will increase to 80 percent by 2020, mostly because of the expected rise in obesity levels.

The Army says about 28 percent of people who apply are rejected because they are overweight or have behavior problems. Others are not permitted to join because they have a criminal record or a history of drug abuse. Some are rejected because they are unable to meet the military’s academic requirements. One-quarter of the high school graduates who take the Army’s math and reading test fail it.

Beth Asch is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a research group. She studies military recruiting activities. She is surprised by the number of people who cannot meet the military’s standards.

“It does sound like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing isn’t it?’ There are a lot of people who simply don’t qualify.”

Major General Allen Batschelet is the commander of the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Command. He spoke to the public radio program Here and Now in August about the Army’s recruiting difficulties. He says the main problem is young Americans’ poor physical fitness.

“The factors that we use to measure and evaluate people to join the Army increasingly they’re not able to meet those requirements. It’s very troubling, and the trends are not in the good direction -- especially in regards to fitness. Young people are showing up at our doors increasingly unfit or obese and it’s, it’s a real problem.”

In the 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the National Institutes of Health found that one-third of all Americans can be considered obese. A group of retired senior military officers is warning that the country’s high obesity rate threatens national security and the military’s ability to win wars. D. Allen Youngman is a member of the group, which is called Mission: Readiness. He is a retired U.S. Army major general. He told VOA the problems of American society are affecting the country’s military.

“…the same issues and the way they’re impacting America’s overall quality of life, competitiveness in a global economy and other things.”

The retired senior officers are fighting larger social forces. For instance, schools do not always offer healthy food or require that students exercise. General Youngman says he knows changing people’s behavior is a difficult fight.

“Human nature, you know, draws us toward sugar and fat and things like that. And if, and if we say it’s all about choice well then we have to live with those consequences. But if we, if we can provide more intelligent choices then, you know, young people are gonna respond.”

The U.S. Army reflects the nature of the country’s youth. And many young Americans are simply too fat to fight. General Batschelet says he is worried the Army will soon be unable to reach its recruiting goals. He says the country’s current social trends may be creating a serious national security problem.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

Tomorrow, we will report on possible changes to the Army’s weight standards for cyber-warriors. Not everyone is happy the Army is considering such a change.

Christopher Cruise reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

qualified adj. having the necessary skill, experience, or knowledge to do a particular job or activity; having the qualifications to do something

eligible adj. able to be chosen for something; able to do or receive something

enlistment period n. a term of enlistment in the military (usually 3-4 years in the US military)

recruit v. to find suitable people and get them to join a company, an organization or the armed forces

tattoo n. a picture or word that is permanently drawn on a person’s skin by using a needle and ink

behavior problems n. issues with the way a person or animal acts or behaves

academic adj. of or relating to schools and education

physical fitness adj. physically healthy and strong

quality of life n. how good or bad a person’s life is

competitiveness n. as good as or better than others of the same kind; able to compete successfully with others

standards n. a level of quality or achievement that is considered acceptable or desirable

larger social forces n. societal trends; society working together in order to achieve something or change behaviors or characteristics

healthy food n. food that is good for your health

exercise n. physical activity that is done in order to become stronger and healthier

draws us toward idiom motivates or compels to take an action

consequences n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

respond v. to have a particular reaction to something

reflects the nature v. to show or be a sign of the nature of something or of someone’s attitude or feeling

social trends n. a general direction of change in a society; a way of behaving or proceeding that is developing and becoming more common

Have you served in your country’s military or thought about doing so? Is your country’s military finding it difficult to recruit young people to serve? We’d like to hear what is happening where you are. Write your thoughts in the comments section.

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