Army to set new criteria for officers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Faced with a need to expand the Army and ease recruitment problems, Army officials have decided to loosen the requirements for junior officer candidates - accepting prospects who exceed the current age limit by more than a decade, and permitting more flexibility to waive their minor criminal or civil offenses, according to a memo obtained by The Sun.

The May 25 memo, sent to division commanders and other generals, said the Army hopes to attract 300 soldiers up to age 42 to attend Officer Candidate School and become second lieutenants. Using the same age criteria, they also hope to attract an additional 300 civilians with college degrees as officer candidates. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve are working on similar programs, according to the memo.

Like West Point or a college ROTC program, Officer Candidate School is an avenue to becoming an Army officer, involving a rigorous 14-week training program followed by the Officer Basic Course, which includes physical training, classroom study and field exercises. A second lieutenant could be a frontline officer in charge of a platoon of about 30 soldiers or hold various low-level command assignments.

The new criteria establish a clear departure from current requirements, which state that applicants should not reach their "29th birthday prior to training" and should be in "good moral standing." The average age for an OCS graduate is 27, Army officials said.

According to the memo, soldiers ages 18 to 42 may apply and division commanders may recommend waiving minor civil or military offenses. One Army official described an example as underage drinking that might have occurred before an enlistment.

The revisions are being made to help meet several military goals. The Army embarked last year on an effort to increase the size of the force by 30,000 over the next several years. It is also dividing the Army into "modular" units that would require more officers. And overall the Army has been struggling since early this year to meet its recruitment goals.

Meanwhile, the active-duty Army, the Army Reserve and National Guard again fell short of monthly recruiting goals for first-time enlistments last month, officials said yesterday, though they are hopeful that in the coming months young people will sign up in greater numbers and that they can meet their yearly goals.

Some Army officers at the Pentagon who were shown the memo were incredulous that the Army would resort to attracting a 42-year-old to become a second lieutenant, the most junior officer, given the physical requirements to lead troops in the field. The memo said those candidates selected cannot require a "medical waiver" or have a "permanent profile that would prohibit doing push-ups, sit-ups, running and taking the normal" fitness test.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr., a Vietnam War combat veteran and former commandant of the Army War College, said in an interview that he found it "disturbing" that the Army would waive offenses.

Scales also could not recall a time when the Army tried to attract officer candidates so old, other than during the Civil War. "It is unusual to stretch the upper level that far," he said, referring to the age limit.

The retired general also said the "seemingly endless" U.S.-led military mission in Iraq, with repeated deployments for soldiers may be starting to have an effect on officers. "Now that we're in the third year, we're starting to see some fissures in our long-term professional officer corps," he said.

But Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said a lag in recruiting was only one reason for the new program to pull in 300 officers. The "biggest reason" is the increase in the size of the Army, he said, which is slated to grow from last year's 480,000 troops to 510,000 over the next several years to cope with the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hilferty said the Army's original goal for new junior officers was 4,300, though it was adjusted to 4,600 last spring when the decision was made to expand the Army.

The original OCS goal last year was 1,000 and increased to 1,400, he said.

"We find ourselves facing a unique opportunity to grow the Army and want to take advantage of the tremendous experience in our NCO corps to shape the future of the officer corps," Hilferty said. "The leadership and combat experience soldiers are receiving today in Iraq and Afghanistan are huge assets we want to leverage as much as possible."

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the effort to attract older officer candidates makes sense. "It recognizes the value of experience and maturity," Blum said in an interview. "It allows us to maximize our human resources."

Hilferty acknowledged that "42 is a bit old; there must be some discretion exercised." And he recalled that in the past the age limit has been waived "for some exceptional candidates up to age 40."

"Normally we required a waiver for anything over 30," he said, "but the law allows applicants up to 42."

Asked about the waivers for civil and military penalties, Hilferty said "usually only minor infractions are waived," noting the example of underage drinking years before enlistment. "Felonies cannot be waived. Drug offenses and sex offenses are not waived," he said.

Such waivers for offenses are not new, and "we are not intending to lower quality standards," Hilferty said. "Waiver authority is just being delegated to a lower level to speed the process," he said. "It still requires a general officer to consider the packet and grant the waiver."

While the Army plans on smoothing the way for potential officers who have run afoul of the law, the service also is trying to retain more soldiers who have disciplinary problems or other issues that may cut short their careers.

Last week The Wall Street Journal reported on another Army memo, requiring the approval of more senior-level brigade commanders, instead of battalion commanders, to discharge soldiers for pregnancy, drug or alcohol abuse, or poor fitness.

Meanwhile, Army and Pentagon officials said that recruiting figures for May for the active-duty Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard also missed their targets.

Officials said the active-duty Army fell about 25 percent short of its target of signing up 6,700 recruits in May. The gap would have been even wider but for the fact that the target was lowered by 1,350, which was reported by The New York Times yesterday.

Still, Army officials said they are hopeful they can reach the goal of 80,000 active-duty recruits when the federal fiscal year ends in September.

Pentagon officials, who will release the latest recruiting figures tomorrow, said the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard did worse in May than they did in April in attracting the needed recruits.

But one official, who requested anonymity, noted that the summer months and early fall tend to be better for recruiters, with high school graduations spurring young people to consider their futures and summer jobs coming to an end. There are also plans for more advertising as well as new programs, such as a National Guard initiative, which would grant a $1,000 bonus to a soldier responsible for bringing in a recruit who makes it through training and is assigned to a unit.

The changes

Under new standards for junior officer candidates, the Army would:

Accept applicants ages 18 to 42. The previous age limits were 19 to 28.

Allow more flexibility in deciding whether to waive minor criminal or civil offenses in a candidate's background.

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