The majority of potential Army reservists are either hooked on prescription drugs, have too many tattoos, are overweight or have mental conditions that prohibit them from joining the military, recruiters say.
Seven out of 10 applicants fail to meet Army Reserve standards on “mental, moral and physical reasons,” said Capt. Eric Connor, U.S. Army Reserve Command spokesman.
The problem affects the broader service as well. According to Army Recruiting Command statistics compiled last year, 71 percent of young people wanting to join the military would fail to pass service tests because of their physical, moral or cognitive shortcomings.
These problems are worsening even as the Defense Department wants in the coming year to add thousands of members to every branch of the service, both the active forces and the reserves, a plan that will place additional pressure on recruiters who must operate with smaller budgets.
Military budget documents show that the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps are being asked in fiscal year 2016 to recruit 2,000 to 9,500 more active-duty The Army Reserve’s goal in fiscal year 2014 was to recruit 33,261 personnel, but military planners have considerably upped that goal in fiscal year 2016. By the end of next year, recruiters must be able to persuade 39,860 men and women to join the reserves.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, a distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s School of International Service, said recruiters will face a more challenging environment in the coming years because of the improving U.S. economy — in a tough market, younger men are more attracted to the military as a last-resort job — and because the end of major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq lessen the chances for glory and honor.
PHOTOS: Top 10 U.S. fighter jets
“There’s lots of jobs out there, and now it looks like the military is not as involved in as many operations that seem exciting to 18-year-olds,” Gen. Barno said. “So it’s going to be very, very tough to recruit in that population. It’s going to be some really, really challenging times coming up for recruiters.”
But according to Capt. Connor, the Army Reserve has been struggling to meet its recruitment goals for reasons having more to do with the quality of the recruits.
“A major reason is only 3 out of 10 people qualify for the Army Reserve, being disqualified because of mental, moral and physical reasons. We’re also competing against other services for potential recruits and many civilians don’t know about the benefits offered by the Army Reserve or the military,” he said.
Recruiters have seen an uptick in the number of applicants who are dependent on prescription medication for behavioral issues, such as hyperactivity, that preclude them from action.
Other candidates have been rejected for having tattoos too low on their forearms, as the Army put into place more stringent ink restrictions last year. Other recruiters are saying that obesity has become an issue, with many hopeful recruits failing short of the military’s physical standards.
Army Reserve soldiers return to their civilian lives after training, but continue to spend one weekend a month training to keep their skills sharp and, for roughly two weeks a year, receive specialized training. They serve three to six years and can be called into action at any point.
PHOTOS: Top 10 U.S. military helicopters
Ironically, some of the biggest competition for the reserve forces is coming from the active forces, which are under similar pressure.
The regular Army, which is facing the same recruiting problems as its reserve force, is under the most pressure to replenish its troop levels. It has been instructed to boost its target of 57,000 recruits in fiscal year 2016 to 66,500 new troops, even as the U.S. draws down its presence in the Middle East.
Some analysts say the military could remedy any impending recruiting problems by getting more creative in its recruiting efforts, such as establishing a preconditioning camp aimed at those who would fail the physical test but want to join, essentially delaying their active duty until they qualify physically.
“The [recruiting] numbers I have seen are not that bad,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. Once the numbers start sinking, however, considerations like a preconditioning camp will have to be made, he said.
Air Force officials concerned about the shrinking defense budget are reorganizing recruitment staff to require fewer resources to do their jobs, said Capt. Brooke Brzozowske, a spokeswoman for the service. Rather than having multiple one- or two-member recruiting offices, the Air Force plans to consolidate into fewer centralized locations, she said.
“This transformation will strengthen our recruiting force while simultaneously requiring fewer resources to carry out the mission,” Capt. Brzozowske said, adding that the effort is expected to save $11.8 million a year.
The Air Force last month said it has been searching desperately for more pilots to operate the drones that the Obama administration uses to track and kill terrorists in the Middle East. Its overall goals are increasing from 24,018 recruits in 2014 to 26,836 in fiscal year 2016.
Along with the Army, the Marines will be under pressure to up recruiting efforts. Documents show they will need to add 6,258 members — more than the Air Force or Navy — next year.
Marines have been playing an increasingly important role in carrying out President Obama’s military policies, including special missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and evacuations of U.S. embassy staff from Libya, Syria and Yemen.