It's getting much more difficult to join, or stay in, the U.S. Army. Not only is a high school diploma required, but you need good grades. High schools known for low standards, and graduating students just for appearances sake, not because the grad was qualified, are avoided. A graduate from one of those schools can still get in if they do very well on the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test, a general aptitude exam tweaked to emphasize mental skills most useful in the military), but will have to do well in an interview as well.
There are no more waivers. This was a practice that has been declining over the last three years. Waivers allow otherwise qualified (physically and mentally) applicants to enlist, despite having a police record. These are called "moral waivers”. In 2003, 4.6 percent of all recruits benefited from this. In 2006, it was 7.9 percent. Some journalists believed this would lead to an increase in criminal activity on army bases, especially involving young guys who were in gangs before they joined the military. That would make a great headline. This turned out to be the case. In 2006, 16 of 10,000 criminal investigations were gang related. That was up from ten in 2005, five in 2004 and four in 2003. In 2006, there were 61 gang related incidents in 18 army bases. There are believed to be several hundred soldiers who still maintain their gang affiliations. Not enough to be a real problem, but enough to get your editor off your back. But troops enlisted via waivers tend to have a more difficult time completing the training, or have discipline and self-control problems later on. Thus no more waivers.
There’s another problem for potential recruits; the army needs fewer recruits. Last year, the army finished increasing strength to 547,000, and as a result 15,000 fewer recruits are needed this year. The unemployment rate is stuck at nine percent, so a lot of older (late 20s, early 30s) men and women are just looking for a job. The maximum age for joining is 35 (it was 42 for a few years), but the prospect of a half-pay pension after twenty years has an appeal, as does the fact that the armed forces is highly respected these days. Not just because of all the fighting in the last decade, but because of the high recruiting standards. The ancient cliché that “only losers join” is long dead now. The military is now a club that many want to join, but only few are good enough to get in.
Recruiting standards have also soared in the other services, particularly the air force, which has always been picky. The marines have gone from seeking a “few good men” to demanding a “few even better men (and women)”.