Defense Secretary Ash Carter's new proposal to relax the military's recruiting standards for fitness and body composition is fraught with potential problems both politically and practically, observers say.
Carter floated the idea during a speech in New York on Tuesday, suggesting current recruiting standards may be "overly restrictive" and result in the military rejecting people who have vital skills in foreign languages or in fields such as cyber security and intelligence analysis.
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Pentagon officials said the current accessions standards will be reviewed. No changes are imminent, and it’s likely that any final decisions will be made next year after the Obama administration’s top appointees have left the Defense Department.
In the case of fitness and body composition standards, defense officials emphasized that the standards for the active-duty force will not change but some prospective recruits, once considered unfit, might be shipped to boot camp in the hope that initial military training will help them get into shape.
"That is a big can of worms and it’s politically dangerous," said one military official who is familiar with personnel issues. The official spoke to Military Times on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen undermining Carter's efforts.
At a time when the military is opening combat jobs to women, changing policies to allow for transgender troops and assimilating openly gay and lesbian troops into the force, the issue of standards is politically sensitive.
"The one thing that’s made all those efforts palatable is that we weren’t changing the standards. This has been people’s fear all along," the military official said. "They said ‘Yeah, they say they’re not going to lower the standards, but they're going to do it — just watch 'em."
Other entry-level standards that the military may re-evaluate include: past marijuana use, tattoos, swimming proficiency and single parenthood.
The individual services all currently meeting their recruiting goals. But Carter has voiced concern about future recruiting, questioning whether the military’s traditional approach will be able to recruit, train and retain the country's top talent.
Changes in the private sector have made the military's recruiting mission more difficult. Obesity rates among Americans are soaring. Marijuana use is now legal in a growing number of states. Single parenthood is increasingly common. Studies suggest about 70 percent of today’s youth don't qualify for military service because of reasons related to health, education or personnel conduct.
Carter's proposals also recognize that the modern military is changing and now relies more on high-tech skills that may not appear to require the same level of physical fitness required of infantrymen and other combat troops. But the defense secretary’s review is unusual because recruiting standards have traditionally been determined by the individual services, and it’s not clear how much impact Carter’s office can have without direct support from the services' quasi-autonomous leadership.
For example, the official Defense Department baseline on fitness requires only that enlistees have a body-mass index lower than 27.5, which is technically overweight but not clinically obese. The services have traditionally imposed stricter requirements.
On the issue of past drug use, the official Defense Department policy states that new recruits who show up to the pre-boot camp military entrance processing centers and test positive for illegal drugs should be rejected. The services have traditionally imposed stricter standards by refusing enlistment to anyone who admits to moderate past recreational drug use.
Many service-level military officials have been evaluating these issues for years, and the policies have changed incrementally over time.
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Stewart Smith, a former Navy SEAL, has helped dozens of young people get in shape before boot camp. Now an author and fitness consultant, Smith said lowering the standards for entry would potentially increase the risk of injury for recruits who are less fit.
"It’s really hard to have two different groups like that in the same workout," Smith told Military Times. "You’re going to either hurt the kids who don’t meet the standards by doing the daily running programs, rucking, and obstacle courses. Or, you could end up downgrading the physical activity so much that the guys who are within the standards won’t stay in shape."
Smith acknowledged concerns about rising obesity rates and said he often hears from young people who are trying to get their body-mass index within the military’s expectations. He suggested the military could set up a remedial "pre-boot camp" to get people into shape.
"I don’t think you need to change boot camp necessarily. Its working; it gets a lot of people prepared. However, if not everyone can withstand boot camp at a certain fitness level, you change the pre-programming. We can do something with the recruits in a pre-boot camp program. It could be put on the recruiters shoulders to get them prepared or maybe they have to hire contractors to do it," Smith said.
If the services were to relax the fitness standards at the start of boot camp but not at the end of boot camp, the likely result will be more recruits failing out or dropping out of boot camp, the military official said.
"I think you’ll see an increase in attrition at boot camp and that is very expensive for the services," the official said.
Dr. Robert Eckel, an obesity expert who teaches medicine at the University of Colorado’s medical school, said the Pentagon should provide rigorous research to support any change to the fitness or body fat standards.
"I think decisions like this need to be data-based," Eckel told Military Times on Wednesday. "We have to have a commitment to predicating success and if this can’t be accomplished by historical data bases where in fact these kinds of attempts were instituted with some success, then the standards should not change."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.