Up to 75 Percent of US Youth Ineligible for Military Service

Lack of Education, Physical Problems Disqualify Most

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About 75 percent of America's 17- to 24-year-olds were ineligible for military service due to lack of education, obesity, and other physical problems, or criminal history in 2009, according to a report issued by the Mission: Readiness group. Since Congress ended the military draft in 1973, the U.S. armed services depend on a constant flow of new volunteers every year. While that figure has since dropped to 71 percent, the problems with military recruiting remain the same.

Military Eligibility Key Takeaways

  • At least 71 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are now ineligible to serve in the military—some 24 million of the 34 million people in that age range.
  • The strength of the U.S. military depends on a constant flow of qualified volunteers.
  • National security is directly compromised by manpower shortages in the armed forces.

Just Not Smart Enough

In its report, Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve, Mission: Readiness - a group of retired military and civilian military leaders - found that one in four young people between 17 and 24 does not have a high school diploma. About 30 percent of those who do, states the report, still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test, the entrance test required to join the US military. Another one in ten young people cannot serve because of past convictions for felonies or serious misdemeanors, states the report.

Obesity and Other Health Problems Wash Many Out

A full 27 percent of young Americans are simply too overweight to join the military, says Mission: Readiness. "Many are turned away by recruiters and others never try to join. Of those who attempt to join, however, roughly 15,000 young potential recruits fail their entrance physicals every year because they are too heavy."

Nearly 32 percent have other disqualifying health problems, including asthma, eyesight or hearing problems, mental health issues, or recent treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Due to all of the above and other assorted problems, only about two out of 10 American young people are fully eligible to join the military without special waivers, according to the report.
"Imagine ten young people walking into a recruiter's office and seven of them getting turned away," said former Under Secretary of the Army Joe Reeder in a press release. "We cannot allow today's dropout crisis to become a national security crisis."

The Obesity Issue

In 2015, then-Maj. Gen. Allen Batschelet, the commanding general of Army Recruiting Command, called the obesity issue “the most troubling because the trend is going in the wrong direction.” 

Recruiting challenges caused by obesity often put pressure on the military to compensate by enlisting otherwise ineligible candidates. The Defense Department uses its Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to identify a candidate’s knowledge and ability to perform military roles. It classifies candidates into categories from I (the highest) to V (the lowest.) The military prefers to take recruit from categories I-III, but if necessity demands, will take up to 4% from Category IV. During 2017, the U.S. Army recruited nearly 2 percent of its new members, over a thousand soldiers, from Category IV. While these are good people who want to serve their country, history has shown that they do not perform as well.

“Category IV soldiers present several problems,” according to Dennis Laich, a retired Army major general who wrote Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots. “First, they are less likely to complete initial training or their initial term of enlistment. Second, they are more difficult to train because of lower cognitive skills and literacy. Third, they are less effective. ... Finally, training and leading these Category IV soldiers is difficult and time-consuming for our Army’s already overburdened company grade officers and NCOs.”

Post-Recession Military Recruiting Goals in Jeopardy

Clearly, what worries the members of Mission: Readiness - and the Pentagon - is that faced with this ever-shrinking pool of qualified young people, the US military branches will no longer be able to meet their recruiting goals once the economy recovers and non-military jobs return.
"Once the economy begins to grow again, the challenge of finding enough high-quality recruits will return," states the report. "Unless we help more young people get on the right track today, our future military readiness will be put at risk."

"The armed services are meeting recruitment targets in 2009, but those of us who have served in command roles are worried about the trends we see," said Rear Admiral James Barnett (USN, Ret.), in a press release. "Our national security in the year 2030 is absolutely dependent on what's going on in pre-kindergarten today. We urge Congress to take action on this issue this year."

Making Them Smarter, Better, Sooner

The "action" Rear Admiral Barnett wants Congress to take is to pass the Early Learning Challenge Fund Act (H.R. 3221), which would pump over $10 billion into the slate of early education reforms proposed by the Obama administration in July of 2009.

Reacting to the report, then Sec. of Education Arne Duncan said the support of the Mission: Readiness group demonstrates how important early childhood development is for the country.
"I am proud to be joining these senior retired admirals and generals who have served our nation with courage and distinction," Sec. Duncan said. "We know that investing in high-quality early learning programs helps more young children enter school with the skills they need to be successful. That is why this administration has proposed a new investment in early childhood development through the Early Learning Challenge Fund."

In its report, the retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness cite research studies showing that children who benefit from early childhood education are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and avoid crime as adults.

"Commanders in the field have to trust that our soldiers will respect authority, work within the rules and know the difference between right and wrong," said Major General James A. Kelley (USA, Ret.). "Early learning opportunities help instill the qualities that make better citizens, better workers and better candidates for uniformed service."

Stressing that early education is about more than learning to read and count, the report states, "Young children also need to learn to share, wait their turn, follow directions, and build relationships. This is when children begin to develop a conscience -- differentiating right from wrong -- and when they start learning to stick with a task until it is completed."

Some Improvement by 2017

In 2017, the Pentagon reported that 71 percent of young Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the United States military. While an improvement since 2009, this still means that over 24 million of the 34 million people of the eligible age group cannot serve in the armed forces.

The Pentagon continues to stress the situation’s alarming threat to national security. As former commander of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Major General Mark Brilakis stated, “There are 30 some million 17- to 24 year-olds out there, but by the time you get all the way down to those that are qualified, you’re down to less than a million young Americans.”

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Longley, Robert. "Up to 75 Percent of US Youth Ineligible for Military Service." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/us-youth-ineligible-for-military-service-3322428. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 2). Up to 75 Percent of US Youth Ineligible for Military Service. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/us-youth-ineligible-for-military-service-3322428 Longley, Robert. "Up to 75 Percent of US Youth Ineligible for Military Service." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/us-youth-ineligible-for-military-service-3322428 (accessed June 1, 2023).