Facing an enlistment crisis, the Army is granting "waivers"
to an increasingly high percentage of recruits with criminal records -- and
trying to hide it
We're transforming our military. The things I look for are the following:
morale, retention, and recruitment. And retention is high, recruitment is
meeting goals, and people are feeling strong about the mission.
-- George W. Bush, in a Jan. 26 press conference
It was about 10 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2002, when a drug deal was arranged in the
parking lot of a mini-mall in Newark, Del. The car with the drugs, driven by
a man who would become a recruit for the Delaware Air National Guard, pulled
up next to a parked car that was waiting for the exchange. Everything was going
smoothly until the cops arrived.
"I parked and walked over to his car and got in and we were talking,"
the future Air Guardsman later wrote. "He asked if I had any marijuana
and I said yes, that I bought some in Wilmington, Del., earlier that day. He
said he wanted some." The drug dealer went on to recount in a Jan. 11,
2005, statement written to win admission into the military, "I walked back
to my car [and] as soon as I got in my car an officer put his flashlight in
the window and arrested me."
Under Air National Guard rules, the dealer had committed a "major offense"
that would bar him from military service. Air National Guard recruits, like other
members of the military, cannot have drug convictions on their record. But on
Feb. 2, 2005, the applicant who had been arrested in the mini-mall was admitted
into the Delaware Air National Guard. How? Through the use of a little-known,
but increasingly important, escape clause known as a waiver. Waivers, which are
generally approved at the Pentagon, allow recruiters to sign up men and women
who otherwise would be ineligible for service because of legal convictions, medical
problems or other reasons preventing them from meeting minimum standards.
The story of that unnamed Air National Guard recruit (whose name is blacked
out in his statement) is based on documents obtained by Salon under the Freedom
of Information Act. It illustrates one of the tactics that the military is using
in its uphill battle to meet recruiting targets during the Iraq war. The personnel
problems are acute. The Air National Guard, for example, missed its recruiting
target by 14 percent last year. And the regular Army missed its goal by 8 percent,
its largest recruiting shortfall since 1979.
This is where waivers come in. According to statistics provided to Salon by
the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army
said that 17 percent (21,880 new soldiers) of its 2005 recruits were admitted
under waivers. Put another way, more soldiers than are in an entire infantry
division entered the Army in 2005 without meeting normal standards. This use
of waivers represents a 42 percent increase since the pre-Iraq year of 2000.
(All annual figures used in this article are based on the government's fiscal
year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. So fiscal year 2006 began Oct. 1,
In fact, even the already high rate of 17 percent underestimates the use of
waivers, as the Pentagon combined the Army's figures with the lower ones for
reserve forces to dilute the apparent percentage. Equally significant is the
Army's currently liberal use of "moral waivers," which are issued
to recruits who have committed what are loosely defined as criminal offenses.
Officially, the Pentagon states that most waivers issued on moral grounds are
for minor infractions like traffic tickets. Yet documents obtained by Salon
show that many of the offenses are more serious and include drunken driving
and domestic abuse.
Last year, 37 percent of the Army's waivers (about 8,000 soldiers) were based
on moral grounds. Like waivers as a whole, these waivers are proliferating --
they're 32 percent higher than in the prewar year of 2000. As a result, the
odds are going up that the soldiers fighting and taking the casualties in Iraq
entered the Army with a criminal record.
"The more of those people you take, the more problems you are going to
have and the less effective they are going to be," said Lawrence J. Korb,
an assistant secretary of defense under Reagan and a senior fellow at the progressive
Center for American Progress. "This is another way you are lowering your
standards to meet your goals." Retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who was
the Army's chief intelligence officer from 1981 to 1985, also called the increase
in waivers "disturbing."
He expressed concern that the lower standards would place a burden on military
commanders who have to deal with "more lawbreakers and soldiers with anti-social
behavior in their units."
Even without the waivers, the Army has lowered its standards for enlistees.
The Army has eased restrictions on recruiting high school dropouts. It also
raised the maximum recruitment age from 35 to 39. Moreover, last fall the Army
announced that it would be doubling the number of soldiers that it admits who
score near the bottom on a military aptitude test.
In response to inquiries about the number of waivers being used, the Pentagon's
assistant secretary for public affairs issued a three-page statement to Salon
on Monday, headlined, "Military Recruiting -- High Standards With Limited
Waivers." Regarding the use of moral waivers, it argues that "in most
cases, the [criminal] charges were from a time when the applicant was young and
immature." The Pentagon document contends that many waivers were "simply
for an unusual number of traffic violations." It also cites as typical in
waiver cases such minor offenses as "curfew violations, littering, disorderly
Other Pentagon officials, who requested anonymity, cautioned against regarding
this statement from the public affairs desk as the definitive word on the waiver
question. These personnel experts stressed that the Army has a major problem
with its use of exemptions from normal enlistment standards. These sources went
on to say that the Army's statistical data appears to have been scrubbed to
make its use of waivers look more infrequent than it actually is.
One Pentagon official, whom Salon asked to inspect the Army's official waiver
figure, said the Army's claim that it has issued waivers to 17 percent of recruits
"is not a correct number." In fact, the percentage should be higher.
The Army has made the number appear lower by combining data from Army Reserve
forces, including the Army National Guard -- even though the Guard has its own
separate recruiting program and (based on information provided to Salon under
the FOIA) used waivers in only 6 percent of all cases in 2005.
When pressed, the office of public affairs admitted that it had lumped together
data from several military services to derive the official Army waiver number.
Lt. Col. Ellen G. Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman in the office of public affairs,
confirmed that the data provided to Salon had combined the waivers records of
the regular Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard into a single entry.
She confirmed by e-mail: "Yes, these numbers include the active duty and
Krenke referred questions about the Army's actual waiver rate to its Recruiting
Command at Fort Knox, Ky. Julia Bobick, an Army spokeswoman there, said her
unit had received the document that the Pentagon had provided Salon and was
"re-looking" at its own data in light of the follow-up questions.
Until that reexamination is complete, Bobick said, the Army would have no additional
comment. "The numbers that we have are not releasable," she said.
"We are re-looking at these numbers in light of that query."
In short, the military's explanation seems a variant of Catch-22. Officials
now admit that the Army waiver data originally given to Salon was contaminated
with extraneous numbers, but the Army cannot comment on what its actual waiver
percentage might be, since the Pentagon figures are so muddled. When told of
these numbers games, Korb said, "I'm sure that somebody on Capitol Hill
is going to demand the answers."
It is no secret to Congress that the Army, which is fighting the brunt of the
war in Iraq, is facing a severe personnel crisis. A Pentagon-commissioned report
by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments leaked last week warned
that prolonged deployments and recruiting problems were "breaking"
the Army. A chapter of that report, titled "A Recruiting and Retention
Crisis?" goes so far as to say that the grind of war on the Army -- rather
than any political imperatives from Washington -- will accentuate the pace of
military withdrawal from Iraq.
Odom offered a similar interpretation: "We will get out this year, not
because we want to; we don't have any more troops to send. What we are seeing
is the declining capability of the Army caused by the administration's manning
and deployment policies."
A contrary, though far from surprising, view was offered by Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld. Asked about the report warning of a broken Army at a press
conference last week, Rumsfeld said, "I just can't imagine someone looking
at the United States armed forces today and suggesting that they are close to
This fits with the Pentagon's official response that most Army waivers on moral
grounds are for minor infractions like traffic tickets and littering. While
there is no way to independently verify those claims regarding the Army, records
from another branch of service suggest how recruiting waivers can easily be
Under the Freedom of Information Act, Salon obtained copies of a one-inch stack
of waivers granted by the Air National Guard from January to July 2005. Many
of the offenses excused are significantly more serious than driving with a defective
tail light or failing to return overdue library books.
Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, the Air National Guard director, told the House
Committee on Armed Services last July 19, "The Air National Guard's success
is rooted in the quality of our recruits and our ability to retain them. Our
people are unequivocally our most valued resource."
Yet according to the waivers, just four days earlier the Air Guard's national
headquarters had approved the enlistment of a California recruit who had been
charged in October 2003 with "assault by means likely to produce great
bodily injury." True, the recruit was a 17-year-old juvenile when he committed
the crime for which he was later convicted, but that date was less than two
years before he was admitted to the Air Guard.
Other examples from the Air Guard files suggest a wider problem:
After his parents filed a domestic-abuse complaint against him in 2000, a
recruit in Rhode Island was sentenced to one year of probation, ordered to
have "no contact" with his parents, and required to undergo counseling
and to pay court costs. Air National Guard rules say domestic violence convictions
make recruits ineligible -- no exceptions granted. But the records show that
the recruiter in this case brought the issue to an Air Guard staff judge advocate,
who reviewed the file and determined that the offense did not "meet the
domestic violence crime criteria." As a result of this waiver, the recruit
was admitted to his state's Air Guard on May 3, 2005.
A recruit with DWI violations in June 2001 and April 2002 received a waiver
to enter the Iowa Air National Guard on July 15, 2005. The waiver request
from the Iowa Guard to the Pentagon declares that the recruit "realizes
that he made the wrong decision to drink and drive."
Another recruit for the Rhode Island Air National Guard finished five years
of probation in 2002 for breaking and entering, apparently into his girlfriend's
house. A waiver got him into the Guard in June 2005.
A recruit convicted in January 2004 for possession of marijuana, drug paraphernalia
and stolen license-plate tags got into the Hawaii Air National Guard with
a waiver little more than a year later, on March 3, 2005.
Taken together, the troubling statistics from the Army and anecdotal information
derived from the files of the Air National Guard raise a warning flag about
the extent to which the military is lowering its standards to fight the war
in Iraq. The president may be correct in his recent press conference boast that
"we're transforming the military." But the abuse of recruiting waivers
prompts the question: In what direction is this military transformation headed?