Military Eligibility: Most American Youth Aren’t Fit Enough To Enlist

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While some countries still require military service for young people, only one in four Americans are even eligible to join the U.S. military, and just .05% of Americans serve.

War has changed a lot over the last several generations, and the military has as well. With less Americans eligible to serve, and even less choosing to, a chasm is widening between military practices and American citizens’ own knowledge and participation.

As the New York Times puts it, the U.S. military’s expansion coupled with less citizen involvement depicts “a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension.”

The stats

  • According to a Pentagon report, 7 in 10 of today’s young people would fail to qualify for military service, marking a decline in the quality of those willing to serve by U.S. standards.
  • Criminal records, obesity and other health concerns, along with inadequate education force the military to turn down about 80 percent of applicants.
  • It’s suggested that by 2020, only 2 in 10 may be eligible for service.
  • A smaller share of Americans serve in the armed forces since the peace time between WWI and WWII, and young adults have fewer family ties to the military than their ancestors.
  • Less young Americans are viewing the military as an attractive offer: Between 2004 and 2013, the number of youths interested dropped 40 percent. As the economy improves and unemployment rates drop, less consider the military as an option more favorable than the work force.

How it used to be

From 1940 – 1973, American men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces that weren’t met by volunteers. The U.S. then moved to an all-volunteer military force, though men are still required to register as a contingency plan.

During WWII, as many as 12 percent of Americans served in the military; now it’s less than half a percent.  Before, war was integral to the life of  average Americans, the majority of which were related to someone who served.

Pew research suggests that when less citizens serve or are related to those in service, people are less likely to recommend serving in the military, and pay less attention to news about war.

Higher numbers of those in service before the end of the draft in 1973 would suggest that aside from mandatory enlistment, more young people met requirements to serve — or the military had lower standards. Likely, it was somewhere in between.

The Pentagon only began tracking military eligibility recently, says the Wall Street Journal, so it’s difficult to know just what such standards used to be.

How it is

According to a 2009 report, 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military, and of those that attempt, 15,000 fail entrance physicals annually because they are too heavy.

Nearly a third of all young people have health problems other than obesity that will prevent their joining the military. These include problems seeing, breathing, hearing, having mental health issues, and ADD.

One in four young Americans lack a high school diploma, and of those that do, 30 percent still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test. One in ten young adults also cannot join because they have at least one prior conviction or felony.

Others are rejected for being too short, too tall, having visible tattoos and facial piercings, or substance abuse. (Note: The Army has recently begun accepting those with visible tattoos, so long as they are inoffensive.)

The end result is just about only about 1 percent of youths which are both eligible and interested in military service.

The Takeaway

With less armed troops and less young Americans fit or willing to join, the gap between military action and citizens is wide. This is not necessarily bad news for the military, which is moving toward a leaner structure with less active-duty soldiers as it is.

Even so, the problems that make recruiting difficult for the military are problems that hurt society at large as well. Heightened focus on better health and education for all youth, therefore, is a worthy pursuit for the military and America as a whole.


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Jennifer Markert