About 20 percent of all recruits in the U.S. military enter the service with either a medical or conduct waiver, a senior Pentagon official said today.
Last year the services recruited more than 181,000 new members, more than 36,000 of whom came in on some sort of waiver.
About one third of the new recruits were admitted with medical problems and the remainder were waived in despite past criminal activities -- including misdemeanors and some felonies, said Bill Carr, the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy.
That means about one in five recruits have one waiver or another, Carr told military bloggers April 25.
The Pentagon took a public relations hit April 21 when a congressional committee released figures showing that the Army more than doubled the number of felons it admitted between 2006 and 2007 -- from 249 to 511. The Marine Corps' numbers also went up, though by a lower percentage, from 208 in 2006 to 350, or about 75 percent.
Burglaries, theft and drug offenses counted for most of the crimes for which the services granted waivers, though six included manslaughter or vehicular homicide, according to the committee-released data.
Carr acknowledged that some recruits come in with felony arrests and even convictions in their backgrounds, but that they represent a small part of the picture.
"The vast majority of the conduct waivers will be misdemeanor waivers and a litany of three or more traffic offenses. With that, there will be some felony arrests and a few felony convictions," he said.
The military, and especially the Army, has had a tougher time making its recruitment goals in recent years as the war in Iraq drags on. About two years ago, the Army relaxed its tattoo policy to broaden its recruiting pool, accepting recruits who had tattoos on their hands and necks.
But Carr defended the Army, saying it has not lowered its standards.
He told the DMA that even as it relaxed restrictions on how much of a tattoo could be visible in uniform, the Army also began scrutinizing more closely the kinds of tattoos applicants had. Tattoos representing hate groups have never been allowed, he said, but the Army also began compiling gang symbols to match against applicants' tattoos, and any matches were cause to bar someone's enlistment.
Carr made the same argument on the expanded use of waivers last year, including those for felons.
"Waivers are [for] people accepted at the margin," he said. "Are they safe bets? The answer is yes, they are."
In many cases, he said, even those with a felony arrest or convictions, the incident may have been the result of a prank gone terribly wrong or a grotesque error in judgment. But the individual has demonstrated he's turned things around and enlists with the recommendations or endorsements of community leaders, so the Army will consider the recruit.
"And if we have done our job [during training] you'd never be able to find them [in a unit] based on their performance, behavior or their off-duty habits," he said.