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Out of jail, into the Army


Facing an enlistment crisis, the Army is granting "waivers" to an increasingly high percentage of recruits with criminal records -- and trying to hide it.

By Mark Benjamin, Salon

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, 2005.)

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," 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 conduct, etc."

Other Pentagon officials, who requested anonymity, cautioned against regarding this statement from the pubic 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 reserve components."

Krenke referred questions about the Army's actual waiver rate to its Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. Julia Bobic, 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, Bobic 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 breaking."

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 misused.

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?

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Is this a case of "the military lowering its standards" or a case of giving people who have made mistakes (and paid for them) another opportunity? Face it. If you're 17 years old and are caught with Adderall at school (assuming you don't have a prescription), you are quite likely to find yourself carted off to jail and transformed into an adult with a felony conviction. (Possession of a controlled substance on school property is a felony charge in many states. Note that Adderall, Xanax, and other prescription drugs are increasingly abused by high school students.) Of course, a felony conviction means no financial aid to go to college, no job because nobody wants to hire a convicted felon, and no opportunity to join the military because of standards related to drug use.

If the military "sees potential" in a young person who has made a mistake and wants a future (complete with the possibility of receiving funds for college), do you really find fault with this?

If you want to "finish" reporting this story, why not track down the individuals who received waivers? Are they good, solid soldiers? Or have they caused problems after enlisting? Without that information, you've advanced a premise and posed a question in a way that invites readers to come to a negative conclusion. For my money, I would wager that recruits who go through a considerable bit of trouble to obtain a waver and are thereby given a "second chance" probably outperform regular enlistees.

In your fervor to advance your own opinions on this war and the president, you've also stated that young people who make a mistake (and pay for it) are of a "lower standard" than young people who make the SAME mistakes (smoking marijuana, drinking and driving) and don't get caught.

Ouch.

Amen to that.....Im a felon trying to get in. I outscored 84% of other people taking the asvab. Not bad for someone with a felony conviction and a GED. Whoever wrote the reply above is right. I can't get help for college. I can't get a job that pays above $6.50 an hour. Sometimes we need help too.

I am assisting a neighbor who is researching branches that will take a felon with a grand theft auto conviction. Did you get in? Which branch? nascar24n48@verizon.net

I would like to know if you got in also. I have a family member with a class 3 and a class 4 felony for theft.

tom.elliott719@hotmail.com

Our nation's leaders themselves have used illegal drugs. . .

(pssssst: who wants to throw the first stone????)

People like that think they are better than us that make mistakes cuz they don't get caught. You mad an excellent point whoever you are. K>L>J

Of the party of tolerence I am surprised at the total disregard for the rights of citizens to choose. The military has many other standards in which to test the aptitude of someone. Examples of these are the ASVAP TEST and the physical fitness tests. Everything else that you need to know in the military they teach you! Are you really saying felons are unable to learn? I would hope your position would change on this matter and understand mistakes don't make you any less human, infact it's what makes you human.

Matt
American Citizen
madpit17@yahoo.com

Who are you to to say that we people whom have been convicted of or are serving time for DUI's and smokin pot can not change our lives and serve our country? You must not believe in someone changing so you must still have someone whipeing your adult poop shoot everyday because you havent changed..or have you? My point is that we as humans make mistakes. Some of us learn quick while others learn slower or never. But for those of us who do learn we should be allowed to serve our country too! I am 25 and on probation untill 08 for A DUI here in Indiana. I have been told once I am off probation I will get a waiver as long as I score high on the ASVB test. I have been studieing the test for over 2 years. I am willing to die for this country just as quick as all soldiers are today. I got sentenced in 03' 2 months before the war started and have been regretfull ever since because I made a selfish act instead of a selfless one. I have been working hard at getting released so I can try to enlist and go over to Iraq to protect those people and fellow sodiers for a long time.Not to mention to keep people like yourself out of harms way.Bet you couldnt survive the hood so how are you going to survive a war? I can and could at least put up with the sress that pansies like yourself would cruble under Mr. Benjie!!
Props to those who agree with me. Besides who wants to fight a war next to some one who has had everything giving to to them without lessons on struggle and survival?
A proud ******g American!! Kevin L Johnson, FW. IN.

I think that a second chance is exactly what people need.I believe our President once recieved a DWI.Is he one of THOSE(undesireable)people as quoted by Regans military former big wig.If anyone I`d say over the age of 50 had grownup in todays society of judicial grandstanding by D.A.`s and the media ,espically the since 1995 domestic violence laws(In tennessee where I am if the police are called to a domestic squabble then someone has to recieve a domestic charge and they are almost never droped in court even if no one was really assaulted and even if the squabblers themselves didn`t call the police and they cant ever possess a firearm for hunting or join the military FOREVER) and current D.U.I. laws, they would toot a different horn.Dont get me wrong these are serious offences and if you do the crime you should do the time or what ever punishment is warrented but once it`s over it should be over. The times have changed but people haven`t.We have allways been imperfect its just that now some people want to control and condem others.Justifibly putting themselves on a glorfied soapbox when they didn`t have the same legal obsticals limiting there lives.Get off the soapboxes god knows everthing you`ve done anyway and your not any better than anyone else.People change and grow.People learn from mistakes.I believe Jesus said it best (let the one who`s never sined throw the first stone) not let the ones who were never caught or who were under a different set of laws at the time throw the first stone.People make mistakes and learn from them dont condem them for the rest of there lives for things that were mistakes.

If what I just read is correct then if someone in the guard or is fulltime military dosent want to go to war then they simply just get convicted of mistermeanor domestic violence(less than year in jail) instead of going to Canada or going A.W.O.L.. This I guess would also work for a draft.Thank you congress I`ve finally found a way from having to go to Iraq.I`d rather loose my right to bear arms than die anyday.YEA

Verrry interesting idea ya got there!

IMPEACH PNAC> "OUT" THE CABAL !

http://tinyurl.com/a8uz9

You have got to be the worsed kind of person in this country. Someone with no self respect that takes it out on your country. Funny that felons are willing to die to protect the way of life that allows this man to say what he said but he would rather spend a year in jail then protect his freedoms he's abusing. I am sure the person who wrote the actual report is cut from the same cloth, a whinny left wing actavist who grew up with a silver spoon in there mouth and never saw the real suffering of America. You wanna keep felons out of the army fine then we will roam the streets in your white collar town, we will stay home and date your daughters while the so called desireables are off dieing for you, and since we can't get jobs your taxs will pay for my food stamps and my kids medical. I have tried for 3 years since i got off parole to find a way into the military, why ummm lets see do i want to ruin are militarys reputatuin....no thats what you do, do i want to commit crimes in the military...no i could do that here where the penalty is less severe and not everyone has a gun....so what could my reason be, i got it to change my life and do something worth while.

Rev. Cole (yes i am a minister) Oregon. felon, father, son, and brother.

I believe they are lowering standards. My fiance has a pretty good criminal record, some which indeed happen when he was younger, but he has many and they were frequent. They waived everything on his record - from theft, to credit card fraud, and all his traffic violations. Now I'm not saying he is a bad person, because he isn't. And indeed he was young and immature... but ontop of all of the things they had waivers for, he has A HEART MURMUR. Somehow it magically disappeared after the recruiter got a doctor to examine him. What I'd like to know is how, after 21 years of having this murmur, it magically went away. He tried getting into the navy before this and was rejected because of it... So he had a murmur a week ago but this week he doesn't? How ridiculous!
He is already in Kentucky right now and awaiting basic training (has to go through reception). I'm certain once he finds out that all of the things the recruiter said was BS, he'll change his mind... I'm just afraid it is too late. His murmur is still there, but since they had it cleared for him, I fear he will have no way out.
His recruiter also lied and said there was a pretty good chance he wouldn't go to Iraq. Yeah right!

I hate the military, I think the government has become sloppy and lazy. I appreciate those who really go in to serve our country, but the recruiters blind young adults with empty promises.

I wish there were someone higher-up to shed light on these injustices. I don't want my fiance there, not with his heart murmur, and I fear it will only ruin his career in the end.
They don't even see these people as individuals, just someone else to fill the slot. It disgusts me.

I am a convicted felon. I have two first degree felonies and countless lesser charges. Since then I went to college and got my Bachelor's degree, took the ASVAB(military aptitude test)and scored a 93(which put me in the highest percentile 93 - 99), and got into the best physical shape of my life. I am more qualified than 90% of people enlisting in the Army, which is why the Army gladly accepted me. I am going to make one hell of a soldier and America is lucky to have me on their side!

hey bud, i had the same 2 first degree felonies which were burglaries and lesser misdimeanor charges going back into juvinile when i was young. i am now 32. i have been to community college, scored a 70 on my ASVAB and have my GED. i am in good shape. hop did you get in. what recruiting office did you go to and when did you enlist?
i was sworn into the navy and was in the DEP program untill they found out i had 7 misdimeanors, it was to many for them to waiver and told me to try the army if i wanted to serve. i am seeing the army recruiter on monday.
any help i would apppreciate it. thanks

HHHHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOO-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

And what would you say to those of us who have worked harder than you will ever know after the felonies? I have had two first Degree felonies and various midemeanors in my early teens. I have paid the price of them all and even more so. Since 16 I have lived on my own, worked and went to school. Graduated in the top of my high school class and went to college to get an associates in Computer Science. What would you say when I told you that I'm enlisting in the army reserve? I have yet to take the ASVAB and am confident in my knowledge. What would you say when I told you that I have worked extremely hard to get where I am and there is nothing else I would love to do but to serve our wonderful country in the best way I can think of? How hard must I work to be one of these "desirable" people? Or are you scared that these felons and the like will show you that they are better than your selfrighteous opinions? You better learn about the people that they are letting in personally before you judge them so harshly. And see what and who they are now.

From a lady who is old enough to have seen a lot of mistakes, I believe that 90% of the people in prison are there because of a stupid mistake made at a crossroads in their life. If a person has served their time and now wants to make a better life for himself and serve his country, I think they should have that opportunity. The work place in America is certainly not providing any kind of encouragement to felons when they come out of prison. Personally, if those blood thirsty, demented, Sons of Osama ever reach our shores, I hope they open the gates of all the minimum security prisons and hand each man a rifle on his way out. I will take my chances with the bad boys in America.

I am a convicted felon AND misdemeanant. My felonies are 15 years old and consist of illegal weapons possesion and Criminal Restraint (both deemed violent crimes). My misdemeanors were loitering and harassment and were committed within the past 10 years. I successfully received a waiver and recently completed Army basic training.

Moreover, I inquired about enlisting 10 years ago with an Army recruiter and, according to the recruiter at the time, even back then my convictions wouldn't have precluded me from enlisting. I know for a fact, however, convictions guaranteed to NOT let anyone enlist are murder, rape, and narcotics distribution.

Any one whom says it is wrong to let felons in the military is prejudice. That is no different than being prejudice to a certain skin color. Just because someone has been convicted of a felony they should not be branded a screw up the rest of their life. When I first turned 18 I got out of my parents house and moved to Panama City Beach Florida and got my self into a world of trouble all petty B.S. I had never been in any trouble before that and 10 years later still have not been in any trouble not even a traffic ticket. During my youth I was a boyscout and also in the young marine program. I am married with three children and and own my home, I have grown up into a responsible mature family man. My felony was for possession of two pills of extacy this should not stop me from enlisting, I am currently working on enlisting and will not give up.Both of my younger brothers are currently on active duty. There are many soldiers with families and it is not fair to them having to do 18 month tours because many of the able body Americans will not enlist. I am willing to go fight at their sides are they like the guy who wrote this article why dont you go enlist scared you might have to die for your country ,well I am not, felon or not I will persevere, I will not give up.It is these qualities that i believe would make me a good soldier. And what about the soldier who recently jumped onto a grenade to save 4 of his fellow soldiers lives he was waivered into the military. You cannot label people just for making mistakes in their past.

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