By Mary E. Landry
The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs
According to the Department of Defense, 71 percent of all young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to serve in the armed forces. This is largely due to three major factors: poor education, obesity, or a record of crime or drug abuse.
In a constantly changing world, unpredictable threats and demands require service members who can think critically and act quickly. Today, one in five young Americans does not graduate from high school on time, and it is very rare for a recruit to enlist without a high school diploma. Among those who do graduate and try to join the military, another one in five cannot pass the military’s entrance exam on math, literacy, and problem solving. We need men and women who can employ basic logic, math, and literacy skills. As our challenges evolve, so must our ability to think and respond strategically.
The second major threat to our recruiting efforts is obesity. Today, nearly one in three young Americans is too overweight for military service. The consequences go beyond being able to keep up during a run—weak bones and muscles from poor nutrition, being overweight, and lack of exercise play a major role in creating debilitating stress fractures and muscle injuries.
These types of injuries explain why roughly 30 percent of the Army’s reserve population is non-deployable, and are the leading reason for medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, having a record of crime or drug abuse presents significant problems for maintaining a strong defense and for disaster preparedness. Today, 30 percent of young adults cannot enlist because of drug abuse and 10 percent are ineligible because they have at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor.
These barriers present significant problems for maintaining a strong defense and disaster preparedness. But these problems are not unique to the military, and the military cannot fix them on its own. Without major changes by the American public, policymakers, and other stakeholders, it will become more and more difficult to maintain an all-volunteer force in the future.
Picture: English: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy (www.defense.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons