WASHINGTON – Uncle Sam wants YOU, that famous Army recruiting poster says. But does he really?
Not if you're a Ritalin-taking, overweight, Generation Y couch potato -- or some combination of the above.
As for that fashionable "body art" that the military still calls a tattoo, having one is grounds for rejection, too.
With U.S. casualties rising in wars overseas and more opportunities in the civilian work force from an improved U.S. economy, many young people are shunning a career in the Armed Forces. But recruiting is still a two-way street -- and the military, too, doesn't want most people in this prime recruiting age group of 17 to 24.
Of some 32 million Americans now in this group, the Army deems the vast majority too obese, too uneducated, too flawed in some way, according to its estimates for the current budget year.
"As you look at overall population and you start factoring out people, many are not eligible in the first place to apply," said Doug Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command.
Some experts are skeptical.
Previous Defense Department studies have found that 75 percent of young people are ineligible for military service, noted Charles Moskos of Northwestern University. While the professor emeritus who specializes in military sociology says it is "a baloney number," he acknowledges he has no figures to counter it.
"Recruiters are looking for reasons other than themselves," said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "So they blame the pool."
The military's figures are estimates, based partly on census numbers. They are part of an elaborate analysis the military does as it struggles each year to compete with colleges and companies for the nation's best and brightest, plan for future needs and maintain diversity.
The Census Bureau estimates that the overall pool of people who would be in the military's prime target age has shrunk as American society ages. There were 1 million fewer 18- to 24-year olds in 2004 than in 2000, the agency says.
The pool shrinks to 13.6 million when only high school graduates and those who score in the upper half on a military service aptitude test are considered. The 30 percent who are high school dropouts are not the top choice of today's professional, all-volunteer and increasingly high-tech military force.
Other factors include:
--the rising rate of obesity; some 30 percent of U.S. adults are now considered obese.
--a decline in physical fitness; one-third of teenagers are now believed to be incapable of passing a treadmill test.
--a near-epidemic rise in the use of Ritalin and other stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Potential recruits are ineligible for military service if they have taken such a drug in the previous year.
Doctors prescribe these drugs to about 2 million children and 1 million adults a month, according to a federal survey. Many more are believed to be using such stimulants recreationally and to stay awake longer to boost academic and physical performance.
Other potential recruits are rejected because they have criminal histories and too many dependents. Subtract 4.4 million from the pool for these people and for the overweight.
Others can be rejected for medical problems, from blindness to asthma. The Army estimate has subtracted 2.6 million for this group.
That leaves 4.3 million fully qualified potential recruits and an estimated 2.3 million more who might qualify if given waivers on some of their problems.
The bottom line: a total 6.6 million potential recruits from all men and women in the 32 million-person age group.
In the budget year that ended last September, 15 percent of recruits required a waiver in order to be accepted for active duty services -- or about 11,000 people of some 73,000 recruited.
Most waivers were for medical problems. Some were for misdemeanors such as public drunkenness, resisting arrest or misdemeanor assault -- prompting criticism that the Army is lowering its standards.
This year the Army is trying to recruit 80,000 people; all the services are recruiting about 180,000.
And about the tattoos: They are not supposed to be on your neck, refer to gang membership, be offensive, or in any way conflict with military standards on integrity, respect and team work. The military is increasingly giving waivers for some types of tattoos, officials said.