THE U.S. Army met its enlistment goal of 66,000 new recruits in 2007, but that happened, in part, because the Pentagon lowered its educational standards.
At the same time, reports continue to circulate documenting increased gang activity in the military.
That's not to say that these troubling trends are interrelated, but they are occurring in tandem for the first time, which does not bode well for the discipline and readiness of America's voluntary forces.
A study from the National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts-based research group that has been outspoken in its opposition to the Iraq war, reports that the percentage of new recruits entering the Army with a high school diploma declined last year to just under 71 percent, its lowest level in 25 years. In 2005 the comparable figure was a little more than 83 percent.
In addition, the percentage of recruits designated as "high quality," those with both a high school diploma and a score in the top half on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, declined from 56 percent two years ago to 45 percent last year.
To make matters worse, the study found a secondary trend: A disproportionate number of recruits are coming from families earning less than $60,000 per year.
The Army's stated goal of 90 percent of its recruits having a high school diploma is based on research, including a 2004 Pentagon report, that suggested a high school diploma was a good predictor of a recruit's success in the military. But the Army admits it hasn't met that goal since 2004.
FBI gang investigator Jennifer Simon told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in December, 2006, that gang members have been documented on or near U.S. military bases in Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Iraq.
"It's no secret that gang members are prevalent in the armed forces, including internationally," Ms. Simon said.
A 2007 FBI report, "Gang Activity in the U.S. Armed Forces Increasing," said that nearly every major street gang - Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, the 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, and Vice Lords, as well as various white supremacist groups - is represented in the military. That presence, while small, is growing.
According to the FBI report, "Gang membership in the armed forces can disrupt good order and discipline, increase criminal activity on and off military installations, and compromise installation security and force protection. [Military members retaining their gang loyalties] could ultimately jeopardize the safety of other military members and impede gang-affiliated soldiers' ability to act in the best interest of their country."
It is no stretch to suggest that a connection exists between these trends, a connection that bears close scrutiny. The quality of military recruits must not be allowed to decline, just as the military must never become a haven for gang members.
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