WASHINGTON -- Struggling to boost its ranks in wartime, the Army has sharply increased the number of recruits who would normally be barred because of criminal misconduct or alcohol and illegal drug problems, once again raising concerns that the Army is lowering its standards to make its recruiting goals.
Last year, almost one in six Army recruits had a problem in their background that would have disqualified them from military service. In order to accept them, the Army granted special exceptions, known as recruiting waivers.
Recruits with medical problems made up the largest single category of those given waivers. However, the largest increase was among recruits with a history of either criminal conduct or drug and alcohol problems, according to data provided by the Army.
In all, the Army granted waivers to 11,018 recruits in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2005, or 15 percent of those accepted into the service that year. Those figures are up sharply from 2004, when 9,300 waivers were granted, or about 12 percent of those joining the Army.
The Army provided the recruiting figures to The Sun yesterday after the newspaper obtained partial statistics.
Despite the increase in the proportion of those accepted with problems in their background, the Army failed to meet its recruiting target.
A total of 73,000 men and women joined the Army in 2005, down from 77,000 in 2004. The Army reached its recruiting goal in 2004, but it was about 7,000 recruits short last year.
There was a significant increase in the number of recruits with what the Army terms "serious criminal misconduct" in their background.
That category includes aggravated assault, robbery, vehicular manslaughter, receiving stolen property and making terrorist threats, according to Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
The number of recruits in that category increased to 630, from 408 in 2004, reversing at least a four-year trend in which the number of recruits with serious criminal misconduct in their background had declined, according to Army statistics.
The largest increase in waivers was for recruits with misdemeanor convictions. There were 4,587 waivers granted last year in that category, up from 3,667 in 2004. The category includes those with convictions for assault punishable by a fine of less than $500, resisting arrest, public drunkenness and contempt of court, said Smith.
There were 737 waivers for alcohol and illegal drugs, up from 650 the previous year, which also reversed at least a four-year trend of declines in that category. Smith said those waivers were for recruits who tested positive for amphetamines, marijuana or cocaine during recruit processing. A waiver is required to let the recruit wait 45 days before taking another test.
The largest category of waivers was for medical conditions, such as asthma, flat feet or some hearing loss, officials said. There were 5,064 medical waivers in 2005, an increase from the 4,567 in 2004.
Smith said he could not explain why some categories, such as misdemeanors, had increased over the past four years, while others, such as drug- and alcohol-related problems, declined.
"We don't have an arbitrary floor or ceiling" on waivers, he said. "It's looking at each individual and making a decision."
According to Pentagon officials, the percentage of waivers granted by the Army in the recruiting year that began in October is likely to match or exceed the figures from last year.
Smith denied that the increase in waivers reflects a lowering of standards by the Army or difficulties in meeting recruiting goals. The Army has met its monthly goals for the past eight months, according to the service. In deciding to grant waivers, Smith said, the Army decides to look at the "whole person concept" and not just some past incidents.
Army statistics show a fairly steady increase in waivers over the past five years, a period that includes the increasingly deadly war in Iraq.
The waivers reflect a troublesome trend, said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.
"It shows you how the recruiting difficulties are getting worse," he said. "They're dropping the standards. It increases the likelihood of problems in the unit, discipline problems."
"By and large these are flawed recruits," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
He said the ripple effects of the waivers will be felt into the future when the recruits are up for promotion: "Those getting waivers won't be the sergeants we want."
McCaffrey recalled the post-Vietnam Army of the 1970s, which had similar low-quality recruits and soldiers.
"It took us about a decade to take a fractured Army and turn it around," he said, adding that the global situation is grimmer than it was three decades ago. "We don't have 10 years this time."
Army Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., who was chief of Army personnel during the 1991 gulf war, said it's too early to say what effect the increased waivers will have on the Army.
Historically, recruits who have high-school diplomas and are drug-free and crime-free are far more likely to make it through Army training and their three-year or four-year enlistment period, while those lacking these personal attributes are more likely to wash out.
Senior Army leaders continue to dispute criticism from McCaffrey and others, saying that the Army is performing well in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that recruitment is on the upswing and that the soldiers fielded today are the best trained and equipped ever.
"Most of you might remember the armed forces post-Vietnam, where we had major problems in discipline, major problems in readiness, major problems across the board," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's top officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
"The United States Army is not broken."
At the same time, the percentage of waivers is far lower for National Guard and Army Reserve recruits. About 2.2 percent of the 21,300 recruits brought in during 2004 and 2.37 percent of last year's 19,400 recruits received waivers, according to the Army data.
Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy director of recruiting for the National Guard, said senior Guard officials made a decision to keep the number of such waivers as low as possible to avoid "second- and third-order effects."
Jones said those with health problems could be a burden on the Guard's budget, while those who have criminal histories tend to be discipline problems that could infect a unit.
Smith, the Army Recruiting Command spokesman, said the Guard and Reserve might have an easier time avoiding waivers because their recruits tend to be older. There is a "maturity factor" that would decrease the likelihood of criminal or drug problems.
The spike in waivers comes on the heels of a decision by Army leaders to double the percentage of recruits -- from 2 percent to 4 percent -- who score in the lowest acceptable category of the military's aptitude test. That level, known as Category IV, means the potential recruit scored between 16 and 30 on a test in which the highest grade is 99.
The new percentage means that 2,000 or more recruits would come into the Army with lower scores on the aptitude test.
The Army is also bringing in more recruits without high school diplomas and increasing the age limit for recruits, from 35 to 40.
Part of the reason for overall recruiting difficulties is the Bush administration's decision to temporarily increase the size of the Army by 30,000 to deal with the strain caused by the overseas missions in Iraq and elsewhere.
The Army had about 480,000 soldiers before the Sept. 11 attacks. It now has about 492,000 and plans to increase that number to 512,000 over the next two years.
Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said recently that the Army is increasing the number of recruiters and beefing up bonuses, but he acknowledged that attempting to boost the size of the Army during a war is "very challenging."