Under pressure to meet combat needs, the Army and Marine Corps brought in significantly more recruits with felony convictions last year than in 2006, including some with manslaughter and sex crime convictions.
Data released by a congressional committee shows the number of soldiers admitted to the Army with felony records jumped from 249 in 2006 to 511 in 2007. And the number of Marines with felonies rose from 208 to 350.
Those numbers represent a fraction of the more than 180,000 recruits brought in by the active duty Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines during fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007. But they highlight a trend that has raised concerns both within the military and on Capitol Hill.
The bulk of the crimes involved were burglaries, other thefts, and drug offenses, but nine involved sex crimes and six involved manslaughter or vehicular homicide convictions. Several dozen Army and Marine recruits had aggravated assault or robbery convictions, including incidents involving weapons.
Struggling to find recruits
Both the Army and Marine Corps have been struggling to increase their numbers as part of a broader effort to meet the combat needs of a military fighting wars on two fronts. As a result, the number of recruits needing waivers for crimes or other bad conduct has grown in recent years, as well as those needing medical or aptitude waivers.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, who released the data, noted that there may be valid reasons for granting the waivers and giving individuals a second chance.
But he added, "Concerns have been raised that the significant increase in the recruitment of persons with criminal records is a result of the strain put on the military by the Iraq war and may be undermining military readiness."
The services use a waiver process to let in recruits with felony convictions, and many of the crimes were committed when the service members were juveniles.
"Waivers are used judiciously and granted only after a thorough review," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington said.
He added that "low unemployment, a protracted war on terror, a decline in propensity to serve," and the growing reluctance of parents, teachers and other adults to recommend young people go into the military, has made recruiting a challenge.
According to the Army, 18 percent of the recruits needed conduct waivers in fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, compared to 15 percent in the 12-month period ending in Sept. 30, 2006.
"We are growing the Army fast and there are some waivers; we know that," said Army Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, deputy chief of staff for operations. "It hasn't alarmed us yet."
He added that "the better part of making soldiers is about leadership. Somebody invested in me, you know. That's the beauty of the United States Army. It's about leadership ... You've got to give people an opportunity to serve."
Easing waiver requirements
Late last fall, the Pentagon quietly began looking for ways to make it easier for people with minor criminal records to join the military. The goal of that review is to make cumbersome waiver requirements consistent across the services — the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force — and reduce the number of petty crimes that now trigger the process.
According to the data released Monday, a bit more than half of the Army's 511 convictions in 2007 were for various types of thefts, ranging from burglaries to bad checks and stolen cars. Another 130 were for drug offenses.
The remainder, however, included two in 2007 for manslaughter, compared to one in 2006; five for sexual crimes (which can include rape, incest or sexual assaults) compared to two in 2006; and three for negligent or vehicular homicide, compared to two in 2006. Two received waivers for terrorist threats including bomb threats in 2007, compared to one in 2006.
At least 235 of the Marine Corps' 350 waivers were for various types of thefts in 2007, and another 63 were for assaults or robberies that may also have included use of a weapon. The remainder included one for manslaughter in 2007, compared to none in 2006; four for sex crimes, compared to one in 2006; and five for terror threats, including bomb threats, compared to two in 2006.
The total number of sailors who received felony waivers dipped from 48 in 2006 to 42 in 2007. Most were for a variety of thefts or drug and drunk driving convictions. Two in 2007 were for terror or bomb threats compared to three in 2006.
There were no Air Force recruits with waivers for felony convictions in 2007.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said that offering waivers for those who are otherwise qualified "is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call to duty." He said the burden remains on them to prove they should be admitted to the service.
Waivers must be approved by an officer who is ranked as a brigadier general or above, and recruits must have written recommendations and endorsements from community leaders showing they would be a good bet for the military.