Army acknowledges taking more low-scoring recruits

Military meets goals by accepting thousands who do poorly on tests

August 16, 2006|By DAVID WOOD | DAVID WOOD,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- At a time when the Defense Department is calling for "the best and the brightest" to fight today's tricky unconventional wars, the Army is quietly signing up thousands of low-scoring recruits, who historically have performed less well, in order to meet its recruiting goals.

Only two years ago, the Army accepted fewer than 500 of these recruits, who scored below the 31st percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) given to all recruits.

Those scores put them in Category IV, the lowest category the military can accept.

4% of volunteers

When the fiscal year ends next month, the Army will have enlisted 3,200 Category IV recruits, Army officials said. That amounts to 4 percent of the 80,000 volunteers the Army will enroll this year.

Last year, amid widespread recruiting difficulties, the Army accepted 2,900 Category IV recruits.

This year the Army, facing continued difficulty recruiting because of the war in Iraq and plentiful jobs in the civilian economy, boosted its enlistment bonuses and other incentives in an effort to meet its recruiting goals.

The Army announced last week that it had met its recruiting goals in July for the 14th straight month and is running ahead of its year-to-date recruiting mission by 2,355 soldiers.

But if the Army had not accepted the Category IV recruits, it would have missed those goals.

Defense Department and Army officials declined to respond directly to the new numbers, which the Army released in response to questions.

The willingness to accept lower-scoring recruits seemed to contradict top Defense Department guidance that demands a sharp increase in soldiers' ability to master languages, adapt to different cultural sensitivities and endure high stress in situations like Iraq where wrong decisions, even by young privates, can have huge repercussions.

`A problem'

Accepting more Category IV soldiers "is a problem - we know it is a problem," said David R. Segal, a military behavioral scientist and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

"It is more difficult to be a soldier," Segal said. "Smarter people do it better, particularly in combat where they are better able to respond with common sense to situations that their training didn't prepare them for."

In the "long war" against extremism, the military must "attract and retain the best and brightest" young Americans for military service, the Pentagon said in its major strategic document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, released this spring.

But the Army has long argued, in a view backed up by academic research and the wisdom of platoon sergeants, that the "best and brightest" does not include "Cat IV" recruits, who have a higher probability of becoming disciplinary problems and failing to absorb training, and have a higher probability of dropping out before the end of their first tour of duty.

Trend reversed

Until recently, Pentagon officials were able to boast that because of more intense recruiting, they could reduce the intake of Category IV recruits, from 33 percent in fiscal 1979 to 1 percent or less through the 1990s.

In a statement yesterday, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, acknowledged that "individuals in AFQT Category IV do not perform as well on the job" as those who score higher.

But she said Category IV soldiers "have successfully met Services' training standards."

Several Army studies have documented that test scores do predict how well a soldier will perform.

For instance, a 1992 study tested Patriot missile battery crews for battlefield survival skills. It found soldiers who had tested in the highest ranks on the AFQT scored at 68 percent, while those in Category IV scored at 26 percent.

A 1986 study of tank gunners found that replacing a Category IV crew with the next highest level, Category III, improved gunnery scores by 34 percent.

Another view

But senior Pentagon officials have sought to play down such findings.

"Just because you scored low on the test doesn't mean you are going to be a bad soldier," David Chu, the Pentagon's manpower chief, told reporters at a briefing last month.

For one thing, he said, the tests are given in English and some recruits "don't speak English very well."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who fought in Vietnam and later commanded the 1st Armored Division, said his "biggest fear is to disparage people that are willing to serve their country."

Nash said everyone in the service "knows somebody who was a Cat-IV and was a damned fine soldier. Hell, there were people who thought I was a Cat-IV," he said.

Still, he said, accepting a few more Category IV soldiers each year means "there can be a degradation of capacity that honestly is hard to notice while it is going on. But it is going on."

"You don't want to say the sky is falling," Nash said. "But it is hard to be a soldier today.

"The behavior of one soldier or a fire team can have huge strategic implications, and these murders and rape allegations are living proof of that," he said, referring to several current cases of alleged misbehavior by soldiers or Marines in Iraq.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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