WASHINGTON — The economic crisis could help the military recruit and retain troops, Pentagon officials said Friday, potentially ending years of extraordinary bonuses and waivers that have become necessary to keep enough troops to fight two wars.
"We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society," said David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "That is a situation where more are willing to give us a chance. I think that's the big difference — people willing to listen to us."
Chu said all the services met their recruiting goals for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The active Army recruited 80,517; the Marines signed up 37,991; and the Air Force and Navy signed up 66,333. All the branches met their re-enlistment goal except the Air Force, which fell just short of its goal, Chu said.
The U.S. military spent $750 million of its $115 billion personnel budget on bonuses in the past year, he said. The Army currently offers an $18,000 signing bonus, which it gives recruits who come from households earning a median income of $48,616.
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In addition, the Army and Marines aggressively encourage troops to re-enlist, for a bonus of as much as $40,000. In Iraq and Afghanistan, most large bases include at least one recruiter who pitches troops at the mess hall, as they prepare to leave base for a mission and at their bunks. If they sign up overseas, they can collect their bonuses tax-free.
But retired military officers and others fret that the Pentagon has let standards fall too far, allowing more high school dropouts and convicted felons to sign up, particularly in the Army.
In this past fiscal year, recruiters issued a waiver to one in five Army recruits, usually for a past conviction or medical condition. Of those, 511 had felony convictions, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army recruiting chief, up from 372 last year. And 83 percent had a high school diploma, 7 percent short of the Army's 90 percent goal.
Despite that, Bostick said an Army study found that soldiers with waivers are promoted faster and earn more awards than those who don't. But they also have a slightly higher disciplinary record, he said.
Recruiters have had a harder time signing soldiers up after 2003. Troops began serving multiple back-to-back tours, violence began spiking in Iraq and it became evident that the United States would be in sustained conflict, ensuring that troops would likely face more combat tours.
So far the military has no plans to change its standards or increase its recruiting goals for next year in response to the economic crisis.
"I don't see us changing our basic approach," Chu said.
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