Most young Americans don’t qualify for military service

First Sgt. Kenneth Diaz coordinates all recruiting efforts for the Army in Macon and Warner Robins. He orders his subordinates to touch base with 10 people every day.

“I think everyone deserves a chance to serve in the Army or the military in general,” Diaz said.

But of the 10 people Diaz and his soldiers meet, only three are even qualified to join, on average. When recruiting, Diaz is up front about the military’s requirements.

“I don’t want to waste your time,” he said.

According to a report that was commissioned by the Bush Administration and released Thursday, 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are unable to join the military because they fail to meet enlistment requirements. That would mean that more than three quarters of a million young people in Georgia are ineligible for military service.

Additional data compiled by Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., paints an even more alarming picture, nationally and in the state.

One in four young Americans leaves high school without a diploma. The military normally requires a high school diploma to enlist.

One in 10 young Americans has a criminal conviction. Enlistment applicants with criminal records are disqualified from entering in the military. Twenty-seven percent of young Americans are simply too obese to enlist.

“This has been a concern for us for several years,” said Jim Humphreys, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Atlanta. “I think some folks are finally facing up to that.”

The numbers get worse when focused on Georgia.

According to FBI data, one in 13 Georgians are in prison, on parole or on probation — by far the highest of the 50 states.

More than a third, 37 percent, of Georgia children between 10 and 17 are obese — the third-highest obesity rate behind Mississippi and Arkansas — according to 2009 U.S. Department of Education figures.

Thirty-six percent of Georgians do not graduate from high school on time, 10 percentage points more than the national average.

“If they choose to do military, they have to finish high school,” Diaz said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined retired Gen. Wesley Clark and several other retired military officers Thursday to discuss the data at an event in Washington.

“A quality education is really an issue of national security,” Duncan said. “If we don’t educate our children well, we put our nation at risk.”

Duncan, Clark and the retired officers spoke in favor of the Obama administration’s plans to direct federal funds toward early childhood education. As a part of President Obama’s economic stimulus act, $5 billion was designated to support early childhood education.

“The truth is, we built the United States Armed Forces up, but we’re leaving the country behind,” Clark said. More education dollars, Clark said, will produce “the kind of people we will need to help keep America strong and safe through service in the Armed Forces.”

But the issue goes beyond a lack of funding.

“Many of these issues are bigger than just education,” said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. “There obviously are external factors.”

For the time being, the military does not have to worry about meeting recruiting goals. All four services met their recruiting goals in fiscal year 2009.

“The fact that the economy isn’t producing all the jobs we want doesn’t hurt enlistment recruitment, I can tell you that,” Clark said.

If the job market improves, “the competition will stiffen” for military recruiters, Humphreys warned.