WASHINGTON -- Faced with the toughest recruiting market in memory, the Navy is looking for a lot more sailors like Robert Meyerhoff.
Not long ago the high school dropout from Iowa might have been rejected by recruiters. But Meyerhoff's job history, references and score on a military aptitude test earned him a place in the fleet.
During the past year, the Navy doubled the number of high school dropouts it accepted -- from 5 percent to 10 percent -- in an effort to meet its recruiting goal. While some lawmakers worry that more dropouts will mean a lower-quality sea service, the Navy counters that it carefully screens for what it calls a "proven performer" like Meyerhoff.
Meyerhoff, who endlessly quarreled with his mother and dropped out of his violence-ridden high school eight years ago, serves aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. He said it makes sense to try and attract others like him, who are looking for a second chance.
"We realize we've made mistakes in our past," said Meyerhoff, 25, who now has a General Educational Development (GED) diploma and plans on taking college courses at sea. "And we're trying to make it different for ourselves."
The Army, the nation's largest military service, has taken in 10 percent of its recruits without a diploma --a quality-control ceiling recommended by the Pentagon -- for at least a decade. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, holds the line at 5 percent non-high school graduates and last year brought in about 3.8 percent. And the Air Force, with its more technically oriented jobs, requires 99 percent of its recruits to have a high school diploma.
Last year both the Air Force and Army fell short of their recruiting needs, while the Navy barely made its year-end goal. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, made or exceeded the number of recruits it needed in each of the past 56 months.
Navy officials say the effort to bring in more non-high-school graduates, which began in January 1999, is paying off. That group is helping the Navy exceed its recruiting goals at the midway point in the current fiscal year.
Since the "proven performer" program began, 7,062 non-high school graduates have been brought in out of 70,626 recruits.
"We think it's working well. They are people with the aptitude to succeed," said Rear Adm. Edward Hunter, commander of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, site of the Navy's nine-week boot camp.
Still, military officials are concerned that high school dropouts leave boot camp in greater numbers than their high school-graduate counterparts. That attrition can be costly, because it takes about $7,000 to train each recruit in boot camp.
Moreover, military sociologists say there is evidence that non-high school graduates have more disciplinary problems and leave the service earlier than those with diplomas.
Last year, the boot camp attrition rate for the Navy's non-high school graduates was 27 percent, compared with 16 percent for their counterparts with diplomas, according to Navy officials. As of January, the boot camp attrition rate dropped to 21 percent for school dropouts and 13 percent for graduates.
Hunter attributes that reduction to a week-long course unveiled last spring and required of all recruits who fail to finish high school.
The course, known as Academic Capacity or Enhancement (ACE), teaches study and personal skills and is taken by the recruits before they enter boot camp. At the end of the course, recruits can take the GED if they choose to. About 90 percent do and 80 percent pass, officials said.
"It was a worthwhile course," recalled Meyerhoff, who earned his GED five years before joining the Navy.
"It taught me how to study better, how to deal with people."
Navy officials say they are still not satisfied with the higher attrition rate for those who lack a high school diploma. "I would prefer it even lower," Navy Secretary Richard Danzig told a Senate hearing last month.
Still, Danzig said bringing in more non-high school graduates is worth continuing. "I think it's a step in the right direction but the results have not been dramatic one way or another," he said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said Danzig and other military leaders are heading in the wrong direction.
"Lowering personnel standards is risky business," she said. "We reversed the 1970s' military readiness crisis by raising standards, not lowering them. I hope the Navy and all the other military services examine its changes to boost recruiting."
The record for high school dropouts in the fleet is unclear because the Navy does not track their job performance, disciplinary record or attrition rate, said Lynette Williams, a spokeswoman for the Chief of Naval Personnel.
The Army, however, keeps tabs on how its non-high school graduates, all of whom must pass the GED, are performing. It has found that about half those leave the service before three years, compared with an attrition rate of about 35 percent for those with high school diplomas.
The Army brought in about 6,100 GED holders, compared with 56,072 graduates with diplomas last year. This year, the Army wants to bring in an additional 4,000 "highly screened" GED holders who score in the top half of the Army entrance exam and the top three-quarters of its motivational exam, said Lt. Col. Steve Walker, an Army recruiting analyst.
Danzig and other Pentagon officials say they would be missing an opportunity if they did not try to attract the best and brightest non-high school graduates, particularly at a time when a robust economy is making it easy for young people to bypass the military.
"We concluded that we could screen people -- and make sure that these were exceptionally able people," Danzig told senators early last month.
"We demanded that people in that category of not having had the high school diploma have higher-than-average scores on our tests, have employment histories, have character references."
Army Secretary Louis Caldera said going after high school dropouts is necessary because "our traditional recruiting market -- the non-college-bound high school graduate -- is disappearing." Caldera said careful screening "will ensure that we maintain our high quality standards for the soldiers that we recruit."
Meyerhoff joined the Navy last year after his wife saw an advertisement highlighting the service's promise of thousands of dollars in college funds.
"The Navy offered me more than the civilian world offered me," he said. "We weren't going to be making any more money without going back to school."
Meyerhoff said he enjoys the Navy and his job on the carrier, helping to maintain the ship's emergency generators. This summer he is scheduled to serve in the Persian Gulf during a six-month cruise.
He plans to take college courses in law enforcement and hopes to become a Navy security officer.
And he is already thinking of re-enlisting when his four years are
jv0 up. "I've had a lot more opportunities now than I've had before," Meyerhoff said.
Boosted by dropouts, both the Army and Navy are exceeding their recruiting goals this year.
At the end of last month, the Navy was ahead by at least 600 recruits, said Navy officials, pulling in more than 21,600 recruits toward its annual goal of 57,730. The was 300 recruits ahead of its goal at the end of March, so far attracting 33,507 recruits toward its yearly goal of 80,000, officials said.
The Marine Corps brought in 15,495 recruits through the end of February, and is "right on par" toward its annual goal of about 40,000, said Capt. Rob Winchester, a Marine spokesman.
Meanwhile, the Air Force, which brings in only a handful of non-high school graduates each year, says as of the end of February it is 2,205 recruits short of where it should be at this time in the year. The Air Force hopes to reach this year's goal of 34,000 recruits.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, breaks with a number of his colleagues on the issue of high school dropouts.
He has met some who are "marvelous," he said. "I would hope you would continue to take as many as you can take," he told Navy secretary Danzig, "provided they have demonstrated they have cleaned themselves up."
Meyerhoff believes he has done just that. Today he has a brighter future and has resolved differences with his family back in Waterloo, Iowa. "My mom and I actually have a better relationship," he said. "She's proud of me, more than I could ever say before."