Attrition: Hey Soldier, You're Fired

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May 26, 2009: The U.S. Army is using the surge in new recruits to raise the overall quality of their personnel. High civilian unemployment, and far fewer troops headed overseas, has brought in a flood of higher quality recruits. This has put pressure on marginal soldiers to shape up, or be out of a job.

Since the Iraq invasion, which had, for several years (2005-8) put a strain on personnel, it had been easier to get into the army. That's because most of the troops were spending half their time in a combat zone. While casualties were low (averaging fewer than a thousand combat dead a year), there were thousands more disabled by exotic diseases, and many more suffering from combat fatigue. This discouraged a lot of potential recruits.

As a result, recruiting standards were lowered a bit, which brought in several thousand new recruits each year that would have not been tolerated before. That's because they were harder to train and more likely to be disciplinary problems. On top of that, commanders were told to ease up on discharging troops who were disciplinary problems. This could range from bad attitudes, to minor problems with booze and drugs. Before September 11, 2001, commanders could be quick to fire (discharge) these problem soldiers, and that made life a lot easier for NCOs and junior officers. Now, after five years of hanging on to troublesome troops, commanders are once more being allowed to get rid of troops who do not do their best. That has a positive effect on everyone. The soldiers who are doing a good job, are not discouraged by slackers who keep getting away with bad behavior. And troops who need a little more encouragement to perform, get it every time some troublesome soldier gets the boot.

Despite the large number of higher quality new applicants, the army continues to recruit some men with criminal records. There are practical reasons for this. For example, many of those let in via "moral waivers" made better combat soldiers. That is, they got promoted faster, re-enlisted at a higher rate, got more awards for valor and were noted for superior combat performance. They were also better educated, and more likely to talk back. A slightly higher percentage of them got punished for that.

All this is nothing new. It was noted as far back as World War II, when detailed records of troop performance were first compiled and analyzed. A disproportionate number of troops that excelled in combat, also had disciplinary problems when off the battlefield. The conventional wisdom was that someone with a "taste for combat" also lacked respect for authority. Research since World War II has shown that risk-taking behavior is the basis of brave acts, as well as criminal ones, drug use, and addiction to things like gambling and dangerous sports.

The U.S. Army has, for the last sixty years, turned down most recruits with a criminal record. The reason was that, since an army (especially in peacetime) depended on discipline to function, anyone who broke the law had already demonstrated problems with following orders. Before September 11, 2001, the army found that 27 percent of recruits with criminal records (and given a "moral waiver" to enlist), didn't finish their enlistment because of misconduct (refusing to obey orders, or just a bad attitude). This was twice the rate of troops who did not need a moral waiver. Back then, less than four percent of recruits got moral waivers. That usually required references from teachers, clergy or employers attesting to how the applicant had shaped up, and was worthy of acceptance. But between 2004-8, the percentage of recruit getting in with moral waivers tripled to 13 percent. Yet there has not been a noticeable decline in troops quality. There is still a higher percentage of moral waiver recruits getting discharged early, but not double the rate of those without moral waivers.

The army has found ways to lower its traditional admission standards, yet still get people who can perform well in a professional force. This is not just the case with those who do poorly on written tests, or did not finish high school. It's especially the case with those allowed in on waivers. The most common items waived are medical conditions, criminal records or drug use, in that order. Most of the moral waivers were for juvenile offenses, and those that did were for adult criminal records accounted for less than one percent (about 500) of the years recruits (about 80,000). Keep in mind that the numbers were talking about here are small, and that the negative impact of recruits with moral waivers is basically non-existent.

Most waivers are for medical problems. For example, many urban recruits have asthma problems. If the recruit is headed for a job that does not require the kind of physical effort that low grade asthma would interfere with, a waiver would be granted. If a prospect has a low grade (no felonies) criminal record, and appears to have moved on from that sort of thing, a waiver is possible. Same with prior drug use. Prospects are made aware of the regular, unannounced, drug tests for troops on active duty. Asking for testimonials from responsible adults helps deal with those seeking moral waivers. The army also has new psychological tests that indicate those that have put their bad behavior behind them, and which haven't. But all this is no consolation to the sergeants, platoon leaders and company commanders that have to deal with troublesome recruits. These leaders like the new rules, if only because it means fewer day-to-day headaches.

 


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