Applications are down at the nation’s military academies, though administrators say the drop has been caused by factors other than any chilling effect from the war in Iraq.
West Point applications were off 11 percent as of Oct. 21 compared to a year earlier. The U.S. Naval Academy posted a 20 percent drop by the same week and the U.S. Air Force Academy reported a 9 percent drop compared to early October of last year.
The numbers are not final because application deadlines for the classes entering service academies in fall 2005 are still months away. And officials at all three academies noted that current application rates are within normal ranges, despite the one-year drop.
At West Point, U.S. Military Academy administrators say the lower numbers likely reflect the tail end of an application spike that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Naval Academy experienced a similar spike in the last two years, but officials there said it was difficult to speculate on reasons for yearly fluctuations.
The Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy all met or exceeded recruiting targets for the last year. The active-duty Army and the Army Reserve exceeded recruiting goals, while the Army National Guard fell short.
With death tolls mounting in Iraq, some military officials have said they worry lengthy deployments and hard combat could hurt recruiting.
But it’s unclear whether a drawn out conflict will have an affect on military academies. While war can stir up patriotism and boost interest in military careers, the long, unpopular war in Vietnam was thought to have depressed application rates to West Point.
“I really have seen it dwindle in the last year, and that to me is curious,” Brenda Melton, a counselor at the Navarro Academy in San Antonio, said. “I think part of it is that the war is a major topic and they see people getting killed over there and not everyone is in agreement with it.”
U.S. Air Force Academy officials said applications got off to a fast start last year, and the rate is back to normal, with 6,952 by Oct. 4.
“That’s usually where we’re at this time of year,” Capt. Kim Melchor said.
West Point’s admissions officer, Maj. Dale Smith, said he’s sure Iraq has convinced some young people that the academy is not for them. But, he said, it has not dissuaded enough people to affect application numbers, which were slightly above historical averages.
“We don’t sugarcoat it at all,” Smith said. “We tell them ... Every solider you see on TV in Iraq is led by a lieutenant, and those lieutenants come from West Point, and they come from ROTC.”
West Point is the only service academy dealing with an above-average attrition rate for its Class of 2006 as of the start of this academic year. Of the 1,197 cadets who entered West Point in the summer of 2002, 904 remained by the end of August. The loss rate of 25 percent is greater than the previous five classes, which averaged a 20 percent loss rate.
Of two recent West Point dropouts who spoke on the condition of anonymity, one cited disenchantment with Army life and the other said Iraq was a major factor in his decision.
“I didn’t want to be deployed in a war I didn’t believe in,” he said.