FORT JACKSON, S.C. – The Army is ending a program that helped nearly 3,000 high school dropouts earn high school equivalency certificates and become soldiers.
The GED pilot program known as the Army's prep school started here in summer 2008, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left the service scrambling to find soldiers. But since then, with the economy in a downward spiral and jobs hard to come by, more people with diplomas have been enlisting.
In 2008, 82.8 percent of people who enlisted for active duty were high school graduates. That number jumped to 94.6 percent in 2009.
"We're a victim of our own recruiting success," said Col. Kevin Shwedo, deputy commander at Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training installation.
Recruits who were in the program's last class and have been in basic training for about five weeks said they were grateful to squeak through.
"If it weren't for the program, I'd still be a shift manager at McDonald's," said Kristi Garcia of Alice, Texas.
Cradling an M-16 between practice rounds on the shooting range, the 25-year-old married mother of two said she quit high school as a senior after having a child, and put earning a living ahead of schoolwork.
Then, she said, her grandmother died and she realized she wanted more out of life. She decided on the military, but the Marines told her she had too many dependents to enlist. Then an Army recruiter told her about the chance to earn her GED through the Fort Jackson program and got her enrolled.
Two weeks of classwork to brush up on her math and some early morning physical drills later, she passed the GED test and was headed to basic training.
Garcia said she was sorry to see the program end, since it means an opportunity others won't get unless they stay in high school and earn a diploma.
Shwedo said the GED program could be resurrected within months if recruiting slumps again when the job market improves.
He said it gave a chance to a broad mix of individuals who had scored in the top half of the Army's academic entry tests. They often told hard-luck stories of lost jobs, illnesses or broken families that forced them to leave school before earning their diplomas.
They have gone on to a variety of jobs in the Army, such as the infantry, engineering, military police, computer and mechanical positions.
Soldiers who went through the program have held up fairly well, said Army spokeswoman Constance Shaffery. About 11.6 percent left before a two-year term of service was up, compared with 16 percent who earned GED certificates on their own and then enlisted. About 9.4 percent of soldiers with traditional high school diplomas left before two years.
Army recruiters now tell potential recruits that their chances of getting into the service are not good if they don't have a high school diploma, Shaffery said.
For 20-year-old Jayson Reimers of Seattle, who had a young son to support, the GED program was a ticket out of a dead-end part-time mall job. The teachers helped him brush up on subjects he missed when he dropped out of school as a senior, and he passed the GED test on his second try.
"I wanted to work on cars. I wanted a skill," said Reimers, who will head to mechanics' school here.
The remaining weeks of basic training, with rifle practice, road marches and nighttime navigation tests, are less daunting for him now than schoolwork, he said, predicting he and Garcia will both finish successfully next month.
"Come to our graduation!" he said with a broad smile. "We're going to make it!"