Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Army raises enlistment age for reservists to 39

(Reuters) -- The U.S. Army, stung by recruiting shortfalls caused by the Iraq war, has raised the maximum age for new recruits for the part-time Army Reserve and National Guard by five years to 39, officials said Monday.

The Army said the move, a three-year experiment, will add about 22 million people to the pool of those eligible to serve, from about 60 million now. Physical standards will not be relaxed for older recruits, who the Army said were valued for their maturity and patriotism.

The Pentagon has relied heavily on part-time Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers summoned from civilian life to maintain troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 45 percent of U.S. troops currently deployed for those wars are reservists.

At home, the all-volunteer Army has labored to coax potential recruits to volunteer for the Guard and Reserve as well as for active-duty, and to persuade current soldiers to re-enlist when their volunteer commitment ends.

Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, an Army spokeswoman, said the maximum enlistment age for the regular Army will remain 34. While congressional action was not needed to raise the age for the Guard and Reserve, Robbins said, Congress must approve any change for the active-duty force.

"Raising the maximum age for non-prior service enlistment expands the recruiting pool, provides motivated individuals an opportunity to serve, and strengthens the readiness of Reserve units," the Army said in a statement.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said it was possible after the three-year test ends in September 2008 that the Pentagon may consider an enlistment age for Army reservists even older than 39.

Recruiters say the Iraq war is making military service a harder sell, and the Army has added recruiters and financial incentives for enlistment.

The Army National Guard missed its recruiting goal for the 2004 fiscal year and trails its year-to-date 2005 targets. The Army Reserve missed January and February goals and is lagging its target for 2005. The regular Army missed its target for February and trails its annual goal.

"Obviously, this decision is being made partly in response to the personnel shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

Women, blacks top decline

A 6 percent shortfall in Army enlistments so far this fiscal year seems to be driven by a substantial decline in women and black recruits since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.

The Army had been slightly exceeding its recruiting targets until last month, when it fell 1,823 below its February goal of 7,050. The last time the active Army failed to meet a monthly goal was in May 2000. The Army Reserve missed its numbers for January and February.

The war in Iraq and an improving economy have made the recruiting mission "very difficult," said S. Douglas Smith, public affairs officer for the Army's Recruiting Command. But missing the recruiting goal for one month doesn't mean the Army will be short by year's end, he said.

Congress has approved higher enlistment bonuses, more money for college and more recruiters. As these resources come "on line," recruiting will improve, Smith predicted.

An Army Image Study, completed last August, said fear of combat has become the principal reason young people give for not wanting to join the military. More than 1,500 service members have been killed in Iraq, 33 of them women.

More African Americans than members of other ethnic groups identified having to fight for a cause they don't support as a reason for not joining the military. But the study also indicated a higher proportion of blacks and Hispanics than whites are interested in military service, and that more blacks than whites or Hispanics are interested in obtaining commissions as military officers.

Money for college was the principal reason young people gave for enlisting in the military, followed by "duty."

In fiscal year 2000, 23.5 percent of Army recruits were African American; 22.1 percent were female. So far this year, only 14.5 percent are black, just 17.1 percent are female. African Americans make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 census.

The Marine Corps also shows a sharp decline in enlistments by African Americans, but Maj. David Griesmer said this is due mostly to a change in how the data are reported.

The proportion of blacks enlisting in the Marines fell from 11.88 percent in 2001 to 6.38 percent in fiscal year 2004. But recruits now have the option of declining to answer questions about race and ethnicity, an option exercised by nearly one-third of Marine recruits last year, up from less than one percent in 2001.

There has been a slight decline in black recruits and a slight increase in Hispanic recruits since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Caucasian recruitment has been holding steady, said Maj. Dave Griesmer, public affairs officer for the Marine Corps' Recruiting Command.

The proportion of females enlisting in the Marine Corps has remained constant at about 6 percent, he said. So far the Marines are ahead of their recruiting goal for 2005, and continue to lead all services in recruit quality, Griesmer said.

The Air Force and Navy are meeting their recruiting goals, and recruit quality is high.

The military measures recruit quality by the proportion of high school graduates and the proportion of recruits who score in the upper half of the military's version of an IQ test.