It used to be enough: Feeling patriotic and wanting to serve, or maybe just out of options. But joining the military isn’t the same today, with the Armed Forces insisting they’ve got higher standards than they used to.
“A lot of soldiers in right now would not be eligible to serve if they tried to get in today,” said Captain Matthew Krog with the Army. “We don’t want to lower our standards because we are the greatest army in the world.”
Krog is the South Bay Recruiting Company Commander. He oversees recruiters like Sergeant 1st Class Richard Teunis who works out of a Palo Alto office. Teunis said he has had to turn away more potential recruits recently.
“The problem we run into is we have people who want to serve,” Sgt. Teunis explained. “They’re just not able to meet those requirements. That continues to be a challenge and will be.”
Both Teunis and Krog point to Eric Lankenau-Ray as representative of a growing number of higher caliber recruits. For them, though he is not representative of the norm, Lankenau-Ray does demonstrate that higher caliber soldier now joining the military.
“I graduated from Brown in 2010,” Lankenau-Ray said. “I majored in international development with a focus on public health.”
The 27-year-old said he grew up in Africa and realized early on he wanted to do something great for his country. After a short stint working as an HIV-testing counselor in Oakland, he decided to go for the Army’s Special Forces.
“I don’t think some of my friends [from Brown] will ever understand why I’m doing this, but I’m hoping some will eventually come around.”
So who is the Army seeing now in trying to recruit new soldiers?
Historically speaking, high schools have been fertile ground for finding what the Army calls “future soldiers.” Sgt. Teunis estimated that roughly 90-percent of students could qualify for enlisting years ago, including the mid '90s when he was in high school. He doesn’t believe that’s the case anymore.
“Now, instead of being able to talk to 90-percent of the population, you could only talk to 50 percent or maybe less than that,” Teunis said.
So what’s driving this apparent change? That’s what Mission Readiness has been researching and trying to help remedy. It’s a non-partisan non-profit led by retired senior military leaders like former Air Force Brigadier General Jeff Lawson, who practices law in the South Bay.
“People need opportunity and they don’t have it anymore,” said Lawson.
He pointed to reports done by Mission Readiness like the 2009 one titled “ Ready, Willing and Unable” which found that 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24, could not even enlist in the military.
It determined the top three reasons keeping these young Americans from being potential recruits included failure to graduate high school, a criminal record, and physical fitness issues, mainly obesity. When it comes to education, one out of four young Americans does not have a high school diploma.
“We no longer do GEDs, so if you have a GED, you won’t be able to join the army unfortunately,” Teunis said.
With criminal history, Lawson said standards used to be much more lax. “You could get away with minor assaults and car theft.”
But the biggest problem of all? Obesity. “Ready, Willing and Unable” found 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight or obese to join the military. It’s an even grimmer picture in California. A 2011 report titled “Unfit to Fight – a Report on California” found 42-percent of young Californians are too overweight or obese to join the armed forces. Years ago, Lawson said, that wasn’t as big of an issue.
“It used to be we would take people in. Maybe they weren’t in shape and we would put them in basic training. I know people who spent an extra six weeks in basic training while we ran them through a fat farm to lose the weight,” Lawson described. “Those don’t exist anymore. You’re either qualified to come in or you’re not. We do not rehabilitate people anymore.”
What the military does do is provide waivers for everything from education, criminal history to tattoos. However, it is approving fewer waivers, according to Krog and Teunis.
Sam Schmidt agrees. The Sacramento native and Bay Area transplant said she has been rejected, at least for now, because of tattoos on her hands and the side of her neck.
“It was basically like what are my chances of being able to make it in, and he looked at me and said, '50-50.'”
The numbers from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command show a dimming picture. NBC Bay Area calculated the totals and found that the last four consecutive years, the Army has had to cut its recruitment number goals by more than 26,000. There’s no reason given as to why, but Lawson said on top of everything else, another issue pushing a greater divide is the advanced technology.
“Now the weapons system they use, the sensor technology they use, the communication, the commander control systems they use are all very high tech,” Lawson explained. “You can’t just hand somebody a gun and say, ‘Stay awake.’”
What this means, Lawson warned, is taking away an option to those who may need the military the most.
“The military will give them the opportunity to grow up, give them discipline, mental discipline, physical discipline, and it will provide Uncle Sam as that rich uncle who might support you through college,” Lawson began. “And they can’t get that opportunity now because they can’t get in the military in the first place.”