Local News

Military requires higher level recruits to join the ranks

SEBRING - Out of 54 U.S. states and territories, Florida ranks 53rd in the ratio of citizens who are guardsmen, and the state needs more, not fewer, people in the guard, said the Florida National Guard Wednesday.

The Guard was reacting to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposal Monday to cut military spending that would include troop cutbacks after more than a decade of war, including shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II. The Army National Guard would also be reduced from 355,000 to about 335,000 although the budget request calls for special operations forces to grow by nearly 4,000 personnel, to 69,700.

Florida is projected to grow faster than most states, a Guard spokesman added in the news release.

"This growth combined with the force structure cuts being discussed will stretch our abilities to respond to domestic emergencies. Our governor, along with the governors of several other states, is working with the president and the Department of Defense to protect our exceptionally ready forces from these unwise cuts," the news release added.

Monday, Hagel outlined his vision in a speech at the Pentagon, a week before President Barack Obama is to submit his 2015 budget plan to Congress.

He said that U.S. forces must adjust to the reality of smaller budgets, even as he asserted that the United States faces a more volatile, more unpredictable world that requires a more nimble military.

How that will potentially affect military recruiting remains to be seen.

Lt. Col. Bill Mitchell, the Florida National Guard's recruiting and retention battalion commander, said it's too early to tell if, and what kind of a cutback the Florida National Guard might face.

"We are still recruiting," he said. "It has not changed at all."

The Florida National Guard's recruitment targets vary slightly from year to year.

This fiscal year's target is 1,389, Mitchell said. Typically, the Guard tries to meet or even exceed its recruitment goals, he added.

The cuts come as the military is trying to absorb a trillion dollars in reductions to projected spending over a decade under across-the board cuts called sequestration, although a two-year bipartisan budget deal in December alleviated some of the cutbacks.

Among other cuts, sequestration led to freezing of civilian hires in the military.

Lt. Col. James Evans, the Florida National Guard's director of public affairs, said because the Budget Control Act (sequestration) is still in place, the Army has indicated it may cut the Army National Guard to 315,000 in 2016.

"That would be about a 10 percent cut...or, in Florida Army National Guard's case, around 1,000 soldiers. This is pre-decisional, but it's the plan the Army has been circulating," Evans added.

Whether Congress modifies, accepts or fights Obama's budget request, such as the Pentagon's 2015 proposed budget, remains to be seen but military recruiting in general appears to have tightened up as the country winds down two wars and the job market remains lackluster.

"Congress always modifies the president's budget request. They will again. The question is will they do it in small ways or large ways," Kathleen Hicks, a former senior defense official who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Reuters.

"I think the personnel pieces are the trickiest for them," she added, saying the challenge for the Pentagon was judging "in advance what is most likely to be accepted, particularly in a mid-term election year, and what is off the table."

Head of Sebring High School's Jr. ROTC program, Ret. Lt. Col. Charles Farmer said they have been preparing their students who want to be in the military to meet higher testing requirements.

The focus of the ROTC is not to train recruits for the military but to make better citizens, he said, although typically 10 percent of ROTC cadets serve the country.

While the physical testing requirements have not changed, representatives from all the branches of the military have told them the cut-off score for the test, which determines what jobs you will qualify for in the military, is 50.

"The interest among the students (to join the military) is high," he said. "Our Jr. ROTC here is very patriotic and some see this as an opportunity to get more education and serve the country."

Lt. Col. Mary Constantino, spokeswoman at the Army Recruiting Command, Fort Knox, Ky., said they don't keep statistics on how many applicants are turned away from Army recruiting centers.

Constantino said recruiting standards have not changed but fewer than one in four youth who is 17-24 years old is fully qualified to enlist in the Army.

To join the Army a potential recruit must be: a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, 17-35 years old, healthy and in good physical condition and in good moral standing

But violations in the law disqualify many applicants, she added.

Again, one in five American youths fails to graduate high school, and increased obesity rates is another problem, Constantino said.

One in five between 12-19 years of age is overweight, compared to one in 20 in the 1960s, she added.

"This rate is projected to grow to one in four by 2015," she added.

Over the last couple years, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have enlisted their highest-quality recruits since at least 1973, when the military discontinued the draft, a 2013 CNN report states.

"Now a whopping 99 percent of recruits have a high-school diploma - an all-time high. Even candidates with GEDs are often turned away and encouraged to complete at least 15 college credits before re-applying.

There are roughly two applicants for every slot the military is trying to fill," the report said.

While the Army has more than 150 job skills are some more sought out over the others?

"None are more important than others. U.S. Army Recruiting Command recruits soldiers: men and women willing to step forward to serve their country," Constantino added.

The Associated Press contributed to the report.