WASHINGTON – Soldiers who need special waivers to get into the Army because of bad behavior go AWOL more often and face more courts-martial. But they also get promoted faster and re-enlist at a higher rate, according to an internal military study obtained by The Associated Press.
The Army study late last year concluded that taking a chance on a well-screened applicant with a criminal, bad driving or drug record usually pays off. And both the Army and the Marines have been bringing in more recruits with blemished records. Still, senior leaders have called for additional studies, to help determine the impact of the waivers on the Army.
"We believe that so far the return outweighs the risk," said Army Col. Kent M. Miller, who headed the team that conducted the study.
The information has not been released to the public, but the AP obtained a copy of the study.
The statistics show that recruits with criminal records or other drug and alcohol issues have more discipline problems than those without records. Those recruits also are a bit more likely to drop out of the Army because of alcohol.
On the brighter side, those with waivers earn more medals for valor and tend to stay in the Army longer.
In a key finding, the study said that nearly one in five — or 19.5 percent — of the soldiers who needed waivers to join the Army failed to complete the initial term of enlistment, which could be from two to six years. That percentage is just a bit higher than the 17 percent washout rate for those who didn't need a waiver to get in.
About 1 percent of those with waivers appeared before courts-martial, compared with about 0.7 percent of those without waivers.
Overall, soldiers with waivers appear more committed to their service once they get in. Statistics show they tend to stay in the Army longer and re-enlist at higher rates. Also, infantry soldiers with waivers were promoted to sergeant in an average of about 35 months, compared with 39 months for those without waivers.
The Army study compared the performance of soldiers who came in with conduct waivers against those who did not during the years 2003-2006.
In that time, 276,231 recruits enlisted in the Army with no prior military service. Of those 6.5 percent, or nearly 18,000 had waivers.
In a comparison of both groups the study found that soldiers who had received waivers for bad behavior:
— Had a higher desertion rate (4.26 percent vs. 3.23 percent).
— Had a higher misconduct rate (5.95 percent vs. 3.55 percent).
— Had a higher rate of appearances before courts-martial (1 percent vs. 0.71 percent).
— Had a higher dropout rate for alcohol rehabilitation failure (0.27 percent vs. 0.12 percent).
But they also:
— Were more likely to re-enlist (28.48 percent vs. 26.76 percent).
— Got promoted faster to sergeant (after 34.7 months vs. 39 months).
— Had a lower rate of dismissal for personality disorders (0.93 percent vs. 1.12 percent).
— Had a lower rate of dismissal for unsatisfactory performance (0.26 percent vs. 0.48 percent).
Waivers have been a controversial issue for the military in recent months, with the news that the Army and Marine Corps have increased their use of the exemptions to bring in more recruits with criminal records than ever before.
The Army and the Marine Corps are under pressure to attract recruits as they struggle to increase their size in order to meet the combat needs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The last time the active-duty Army missed its recruiting goal was 2005. Last year it set a target of 80,000 recruits and signed up 80,410. It is shooting for another 80,000 this year.
Some critics outside the Defense Department say the military is lowering its standards in order to fill its ranks. And lower-level officers have raised concerns with their leaders that the trend may trigger an increase in disciplinary problems within their units.
Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the Pentagon recently for more data on troops who receive conduct waivers.
He said he recognizes "the importance of providing opportunities to individuals who have served their sentences and rehabilitated themselves." But he also noted concerns that the practice could be undermining military readiness.
Army officials say getting a waiver is a long and difficult process, particularly for those who have been convicted of a serious offense. Serious offenders have their records reviewed and must get approval from as many as nine different analysts and officers — up to the rank of general.
Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va., dismisses the notion that waivers are creating more disciplinary problems in today's Army.
Instead, he said, when the Army brings in a young person who made a mistake and got past it, most likely "they will be a better person for having made that mistake and learned from it, than perhaps somebody who didn't make the mistake and didn't have the opportunity to learn."
Wallace speaks from experience.
As a teen he was taken into custody in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., when — as he put it — "I took an expensive baseball and put it in a not-so-expensive baseball box, and tried to check out with it."
He remembers the black and white police car pulling up, loading his and his friend's bicycles in the back and taking him downtown to the station where his father had to pick him up.
He laid out the sobering experience on his application for West Point several years later and, he recalled this week, "somebody looked at that application and said 'he apparently learned something from the experience and we'll give him an opportunity."'
Wallace, a four-star general whose chest full of awards now includes two Distinguished Service medals, five Legion of Merit awards and an Army Commendation Medal for valor, said the Army has an obligation to give young people a second chance to make something of themselves.
"I am less concerned about the raw material that we receive than I am about the product that we produce," he said.