WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Ash Carter is considering easing some military enlistment standards as part of a broader set of initiatives to better attract and keep quality service members and civilians across the Defense Department.
While there are few details yet, Carter is exploring whether to adjust some of the requirements for certain military jobs, such as those involving cyber or high-tech expertise.
The idea, which is largely in line with many civilian sectors, upends the military's more rigid mindset that puts a high value on standards. And it reignites a persistent debate about how the services approve waivers for recruits who have committed lesser crimes, behaved badly, are older than current regulations allow or have other physical issues that prevent them from joining the military.
The Pentagon released documents laying out some of Carter's plan, saying the secretary sees recruitment and retention as major challenges to a military coming out of two wars and facing turmoil around the world.
Specifically, the Pentagon pointed to cyber jobs as an area where standards — such as age or minor drug offenses — could be relaxed. Military leaders have long complained that it is difficult to attract and keep cyber professionals in the services because they can make far more money in private industry.
This is not the first time, however, that the services looked to reduced restrictions as a way to entice more recruits.
During 2006-2007, the military steadily increased the number of bad behavior waivers as the services — particularly the Army and Marine Corps — struggled to meet deployment demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. The services let in more recruits with criminal records, including some with felony convictions, in order to meet recruiting quotas.
And in some cases, the services relaxed age restrictions, allowing older people to enlist or rejoin the military.
But as the wars dragged on and suicides, sexual assaults and other bad behavior by service members spiked, military leaders began to question whether there was a link to the decline in enlistment standards during the wartime peak.
Carter also is considering other changes to help ensure that the military attracts the best and brightest, including programs to pay off student debt, improvements to the retirement, promotion and evaluation systems and doing more to allow sabbaticals for service members.
There has been much discussion lately about allowing service members to participate in 401k-type programs because as much as 80 percent of the people who enlist don't stay in long enough to earn retirement benefits.
Carter is expected to begin discussing his plans to build a better 21st century force during several stops Monday and Tuesday in Pennsylvania and New York.
He will first visit his high school — Abington Senior High — outside of Philadelphia, where he will talk to students about military and public service. Carter will then travel to Fort Drum, New York, home of the Army's storied 10th Mountain Division, where he will meet with troops.
Brigades from the 10th Mountain Division served as anchor units in eastern Afghanistan for much of the war, particularly during the early years when the U.S. had only a smaller force there. For many years they rotated with brigades from the 82nd Airborne.
And on Tuesday, he will visit Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
The Defense Department has launched a partnership with the institute and the Schultz Family Foundation for a program called Onward to Opportunity, which will provide industry-specific training and job placement assistance for service members and their spouses as the troops leave the military.