Franklin Smith had a wife and an infant son when he convinced a recruiter in Biloxi, Miss., that he wanted to be a Marine.
For the recruiter, bringing in a family man like Smith was a dropout risk — even greater than recruiting someone with a criminal record, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.
In these days of long and repeated warfront tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 10 percent of the male recruits who are married with one or more children, or are financially responsible for a dependent, don't even finish Marine boot camp, according to the Center for Naval Analysis. For women in similar circumstances, the dropout rate jumps to three in 10.
Three-year trends show that recruits who have family responsibilities or did not earn formal high school diplomas are most likely to wash out before they finish initial training. Those recruits also fail more often to complete their first terms of enlistment.
The numbers offer a new slant on recent debates over the Pentagon's acceptance of recruits who have criminal convictions. They suggest that the long slog of war, the Marines' frequent seven-month tours fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, also take a toll on recruits with families.
Smith beat those odds. And during a tour in Iraq last November, he re-enlisted for another four years. But that doesn't mean it was easy.
Knowing the drill
When Smith, now 28, headed to boot camp four years ago, his son Kristian was just a month old.
"It felt a little lonely because you're not at home," he said in an interview with AP. "There's a lot that happens if you're not physically there that you can't get back. ... When he first started to walk, his first smile. I missed all those things."
Smith remembers driving by a recruiting office and deciding to stop after he'd had a bad day at work as a substitute teacher. Members of wife Natasha's family had been in the military, so she and Franklin knew what they were getting into.
Still, Smith needed a special waiver from the Marines to enter the Corps because he had a family. Marine leaders know that the dropout percentages for such troops are high, but since they represent a fairly small number of recruits overall, commanders often are willing to take the risk.
"I'm not going to argue the statistics, that these folks have a higher attrition rate, but I think we have enough checks and balances," said Col. Rodman Sansone, the assistant chief of staff for Marine Corps Recruiting Command. "The numbers are small, and we're comfortable with what we're doing."
Single parents can't join
Under the Marine Corps' regulations:
- Single parents cannot join. Recruits who are married with one or more children require a waiver to get in, as do recruits who are unwed parents and pay child support.
- Recruits who have three or more dependents — which could be a spouse and two children — cannot join the active duty Corps but, with a waiver, can join the reserves.
Sansone said the majority of Marines who come in with waivers for dependents are married with one child. The second most common circumstance is unmarried recruits paying child support.
A key concern, he said, is whether the recruits can meet their bills on a military paycheck, and whether they can deal with the frequent deployments to warfronts where family members cannot join them.
For Smith, who plays the trombone and became a member of the Marine Corps Base Quantico Band, preparing his family for his absence was stressful, a top priority when he deployed to Iraq last year. While there he did security details in the volatile Diyala province and guarded convoy operations. He then went to Ramadi in western Iraq before heading home in March.
Despite the hardships, he said his decision to join was a good choice.
"I never thought it was a mistake. ... I never looked back," Smith said. "In order to succeed and go somewhere, you have to make a choice. And you don't look back at the choice you make, you look ahead and make the best of the choice you made."
No high school diploma means greater dropout risk
During the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, about 1,400 recruits came in with waivers for dependents, and roughly 1,600 came in with waivers because they did not have high school diplomas. Under Marine Corps regulations only 5 percent of all recruits per year may be admitted with education waivers — which means they either did not finish high school at all or received a GED, an alternative diploma.
Those 5 percent are a particularly high risk of leaving early.
Nearly half of all Marine recruits who joined between 1992-2003 and did not have a high school diploma never finished their first term of enlistment — usually a four to six-year contract.
Finishing the initial training is also a challenge. During fiscal years 2003-2005, more than 26 percent of men and almost 17 percent of women recruits without diplomas never finished boot camp.
"We do know that the determining factor of success for a Marine at boot camp and first term is absolutely education," Sansone said. But ruling out that 5 percent without diplomas, he said, "would be a disservice to those who do stick it out."
Deciding who gets a waiver
Waivers have been a troublesome issue for the military, particularly in the wake of recent revelations that the services brought in significantly more recruits with felony convictions last year than in previous years. A few involved manslaughter and sex crimes — most often involving consensual relations involving underaged youth.
The number of Marine recruits with felony records rose from 208 in 2006 to 350 in 2007.
An analysis done by the Center for Naval Analyses, however, showed that Marine recruits who require waivers to get in often receive more merit promotions. But recruits without waivers are almost always more likely to finish boot camp than those with waivers.
Some of the results mirror those for Army soldiers. A recent review of waiver data for the Army showed that soldiers who get waivers because of bad behavior go AWOL more often and face more courts-martial. But they also get promoted faster and re-enlist at a higher rate.
Women make up just 6 percent of the Marine Corps, compared with more than 15 percent of the Army.
Comparable data for Army waivers for recruits with dependents was not immediately available.
According to the data for Marine recruits between 2003 and 2005:
- 9 percent of men and 18.1 percent of women without waivers failed to finish boot camp.
- 9.9 percent of men and 16.7 percent of women with felony convictions failed to finish.
- 10.3 percent of men and 21.5 percent of women with drug use waivers failed.
- 14.8 percent of men and 28.9 percent of women with waivers for having dependents failed to finish.
- 16.9 percent of men and 26.4 percent of women without high school diplomas failed to finish boot camp.
- Roughly 20 percent of the women who joined the Marines from 2003-2005 failed to finish boot camp, double the rate for men.