WASHINGTON — Struggling to boost it ranks in wartime, the Army has sharply increased the number of recruits who would normally be barred because of criminal misconduct or alcohol and illegal drug problems, again raising concerns that the Army is lowering its standards to make recruiting goals.
Last year, almost 1 in 6 Army recruits had a problem in their background that would have disqualified them from military service. In order to accept them, the Army granted special exceptions, known as recruiting waivers.
Recruits with medical problems made up the largest category of those given waivers. But the largest increase was among recruits with a history of either criminal conduct or drug and alcohol problems, according to data provided by the Army.
In all, the Army granted waivers to 11,018 recruits in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2005, or 15% of those accepted into the service that year. Those figures are up from 2004, when 9,300 waivers were granted, or 12% of those joining the Army.
The Army provided the recruiting figures to the Baltimore Sun on Monday after the newspaper obtained partial statistics.
Despite the increase in the proportion of those accepted with problems in their background, the Army failed to meet its recruiting target. A total of 73,000 men and women joined the Army in 2005, down from 77,000 in 2004.
There was a significant increase in the number of recruits with what the Army terms "serious criminal misconduct" in their background.
That category includes aggravated assault, robbery, vehicular manslaughter, receiving stolen property and making terrorist threats, said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Ft. Knox, Ky.
The number of recruits in that category increased to 630, from 408 in 2004, reversing at least a four-year trend in which the number of recruits with serious criminal misconduct in their background had declined, Army statistics showed.
The largest increase in waivers was for recruits with misdemeanor convictions. There were 4,587 waivers granted last year in that category, up from 3,667 in 2004. The category includes those with convictions for assault punishable by a fine of less than $500, resisting arrest, public drunkenness and contempt of court, Smith said.
There were 737 waivers for alcohol and illegal drugs, up from 650 the previous year, which also reversed at least a four-year trend of declines in that category. Smith said those waivers were for recruits who tested positive for amphetamines, marijuana or cocaine during recruit processing. A waiver is required to let the recruit wait 45 days before taking another test.
Smith denied that the increase in waivers reflected a lowering of standards by the Army or difficulties in meeting recruiting goals. The Army has met its monthly goals for the last eight months, the service said.
In deciding to grant waivers, Smith said the Army decided to look at the "whole person concept" and not just some past incidents.
The waivers reflect a troublesome trend, said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.
"It shows you how the recruiting difficulties are getting worse," he said. "They're dropping the standards. It increases the likelihood of problems in the unit, discipline problems."
"By and large these are flawed recruits," said retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, adding that the ripple effects of the waivers would be felt into the future when the recruits are up for promotion.
"Those getting waivers won't be the sergeants we want."