WASHINGTON – Uncle Sam may not want you after all.
In sharp contrast to the peak years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army last year took in no recruits with misconduct convictions or drug or alcohol issues, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press. And soldiers already serving on active duty now must meet tougher standards to stay on for further tours in uniform.
The Army is also spending hundreds of thousands of dollars less in bonuses to attract recruits or entice soldiers to remain.
It's all part of an effort to slash the size of the active duty Army from about 570,000 at the height of the Iraq war to 490,000 by 2017. The cutbacks began last year, and as of the end of March the Army was down to less than 558,000 troops.
For a time during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army lowered its recruiting standards, raising the number of recruits who entered the Army with moral, medical and criminal — including felony — waivers.
Recruits with misdemeanors, which could range from petty theft and writing bad checks to assault, were allowed into the Army, as well as those with some medical problems or low aptitude scores that might otherwise have disqualified them.
A very small fraction of recruits had waivers for felonies, which included convictions for manslaughter, vehicular homicide, robbery and a handful of sex crimes. The sex crimes often involved consensual sex when one of the individuals was under 18.
In 2006, about 20 percent of new Army recruits came in under some type of waiver, and by the next year it had grown to nearly three in 10. After the Defense Department issued new guidelines, the percentage needing waivers started to come down in 2009.
Now, as the Army moves to reduce its force, some soldiers will have to leave.
Officials say they hope to make cuts largely through voluntary attrition. But Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has warned that as much as 35 percent of the cuts will be "involuntary" ones that force soldiers to abandon what they had hoped would be long military careers.
"This is going to be hard," said Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Army Forces Command. "This is tough business. As we increase things like re-enlistment standards, some of the people who were able to re-enlist three years ago won't be able to re-enlist again."
The Army, in an internal slide presentation, is blunt: "Re-enlistment is a privilege, not a right; some 'fully qualified' soldiers will be denied re-enlistment due to force realignment requirements and reductions in end strength."
In a memo earlier this year, Army Secretary John McHugh laid out more stringent criteria for denying re-enlistment, including rules that would turn away soldiers who have gotten a letter of reprimand for a recent incident involving the use of drugs or alcohol, or some soldiers who were unable to qualify for a promotion list.
"It's all focused on allowing us ... to retain only those soldiers who have the right skills, the right attributes and who help us meet the requirements and are those soldiers which truly have the greatest potential," said Army Brig. Gen. Richard P. Mustion, the Army's director of military personnel management.
Last year, as the budget and personnel cuts began to take hold, just a bit more than 10 percent of Army recruits needed waivers to join. The bulk of those — about 7 percent — were medical waivers, which can include poor eyesight that can be corrected. About 3 percent were for misconduct that did not involve convictions.
The decline in recent years was almost entirely on conduct waivers, not medical. As an example, there were 189 recruits with "major misconduct" waivers last year, and none with criminal convictions, compared to 546 misconduct waivers in 2009 and 220 with convictions.
Mustion said that as Army recruiters look at the applicants coming in they "are truly able to identify the very best soldiers, future soldiers, and those who display the greatest potential."
He said they are evaluating each one on his physical, academic and aptitude test performances "and, quite frankly, would they require a waiver to come into the military versus the next soldier who has the same credentials but wouldn't require a waiver."
Waivers have long been a source of debate. Military officials have defended the process, saying it allows good people who once made a minor mistake to enlist. But mid-level officers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan also told top defense officials that the dramatic rise in the number of bad-behavior waivers was a problem, that they were often spending too much time on "problem children."
Steven Dale Green, a former 101st Airborne Division soldier, came into the Army on a morals waiver because of an earlier problem with drugs. He is now serving five life terms for killing an Iraqi family and raping and killing the 14-year-old daughter in March 2006.
With the economy struggling, it's still a recruit-rich environment. But Army officials worry that as the economy gets better, they may not get all the high-quality recruits they need, and their best soldiers may decide not to re-enlist because they may do better in the corporate world.
For now, however, the Army is saving money in the process.
According to Mustion, soldiers in just six types of jobs are getting bonuses when they enlist: interpreter/translators, divers, cryptologic linguists, medical laboratory specialists and explosive ordnance disposal specialists. And those bonuses average about $3,300-$3,500, he said.
That is a steep drop from the $16,000-$18,000 bonuses the Army was paying on average to new recruits in 2007-08. In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, the Army paid nearly $860,000 in enlistment bonuses, compared with just $77,000 in the 2011 fiscal year.
Re-enlistment bonuses for soldiers now average about $7,500-$7,700.
Military leaders say the key goal is to shape the force as they cut, winnowing out not only the lesser qualified, but keeping the right number of soldiers in critical jobs and all across the ranks, particularly the mid-level officers.
"We need to keep the right balance," said Rodriguez. "We don't want a well-modernized force with no personnel that are trained."
The Army, he said, "can build a young soldier quickly, but we can't build a major and a sergeant quickly. So we have to figure out the right ratios as we move forward, and we have to be able to expand if we need to."
Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor