RALEIGH — The biggest long-term threat to U.S. national security might not be terrorists or weapons of mass destruction. According to a group of military leaders, it's homegrown obesity, ignorance and criminality, which together make seven of 10 target-age recruits ineligible to serve in the American armed forces.
"It's not just disturbing. It's a call to action," James A. Kelly, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said Thursday during a telephone news conference from Washington.
Kelly is one of nearly 100 former and current military leaders who came together last year to form an organization called Mission: Readiness to draw attention to the status of potential recruits. In a study it calls "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," the group says Pentagon analysts have concluded that 75 percent of people ages 17 to 24 could not qualify for military service because they are obese or have some other health problem, lack a high school diploma or have a serious criminal history.
In a year when a down economy has helped the all-volunteer military meet all its recruiting and retention goals, it may seem odd to focus on who can't get in.
But Mission: Readiness worries about the future and says this is the time to invest in programs to help improve young people's chances at success in life, including a career in the military. At its news conference, speakers urged the U.S. House to pass an education bill that would include $8 billion for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would give states money to support preschool education programs. The bill has been approved by the Senate.
Mission: Readiness cites studies saying early childhood education, especially for poor and minority kids, improves high school graduation rates and reduces involvement in crime.
Local Army recruiters say they have been dealing with these obstacles for years.
On a busy day, 20 people will walk into the U.S. Army Recruiting center off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh to ask about a future in the military, said Staff Sgt. Terrance Moody, a recruiter. He talks to them about why they're interested in the Army, what they want to do, what qualifications they have - or lack.
"I talk to them about discipline more than anything," said Moody, who also visits schools to talk to students about what the military has to offer.
If they exceed the Army's weight standards, recruits can come to the station and run or do other exercises with Army personnel. If they don't score at least 31 out of 100 in a practice version of the Army's standardized aptitude test, they can use an online tutoring program to sharpen their math, language and science skills before testing again.
The military can issue waivers for almost any disqualification, but as the economy drives more people to consider military careers, waivers are harder to get.
William Adams, 20, a Shaw University sophomore who's in ROTC, made his second visit to the recruiting office Thursday. He had scored 63 on his pretest. His criminal record is clean, he said, and he can do 50 push-ups in two minutes. He wants to join the Army Reserve and get additional training so that when he graduates he can go straight into active duty. He hopes to be an aviator.
He sees people every day, he says, who couldn't make it. "The military is not made for everyone," he said.
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