For the people who make it, joining the Army can seem too easy.
“I was honestly surprised that there weren't more limitations,” said Clayton Meier, 18, of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, when he and more than a dozen other enlistees completed a sprinting exercise led by a recruiter.
Joab Carswell, 21, of the Hill District agreed. He decided to join the Army because it presented better job opportunities than he's finding in civilian life.
“You don't want to be washing dishes in your 30s,” he said.
Mike Lovett, 17, of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, expected tougher physical tests: “I have to work to get to it, but it's not some insurmountable thing.”
Yet disqualifications are easy to come by. Just above Meier's elbow is a tattoo that, if it were lower on his arm, would have kept him from enlisting.
With budget cuts, the Iraq war ending and reduction of forces in Afghanistan, the Army and other branches of the military need fewer people. Since 2003, enlistment goals for most active and reserve branches dropped between 18 and 35 percent. The Navy Reserve cut its recruiting goals by 66 percent.
“Everybody does more with less,” Master Chief Aaron Smith said.
Like any organization, the Navy needs to find people qualified for jobs it must perform, and more of its people re-enlist to do those jobs — further cutting the number of openings.
“It used to be a lot of people could get in,” said Smith, assistant recruiting chief for the Navy's Pittsburgh recruiting district. “We just don't have the job availability.”
Locally, the Air Force Reserve has had fewer applicants and fewer of them qualifying, said Master Sgt. Dawn Serakowski, a recruiter stationed in Moon.
The 911th Airlift Wing has survived a couple of attempts from the Air Force to close the Reserve base in Moon. That has raised questions about its future among people seeking to enlist, she said.
“I answer questions about that every day,” Serakowski said.
Most branches eliminated or are less likely to grant waivers to applicants with criminal records or those lacking high school diplomas.
“Those exceptions are few and far between today,” said Capt. Jonathan Schwarz, commander of the Army's Pittsburgh recruiting company.
Smith said the Navy a few years ago did away with waivers for anyone with a record of physical violence. Felony convictions are “a show stopper,” but misdemeanor convictions are handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Tattoos were one of the biggest changes for the Army — and one of the bigger challenges, given their growing popularity among younger adults, Schwarz said.
The Army prohibits tattoos on the neck and head, from the elbow down the forearm, and from the knee down the leg. It will grant a waiver on arm and leg tattoos that an applicant can cover with his or her hand, as long as the tattoo isn't racist, sexist, gang-related or obscene, he said. Though Schwarz didn't have statistics on how many people are disqualified because of tattoos, he knew of five instances in one week.
“It's a cultural shift,” he said.
The Marine Corps is more restrictive on tattoos, said Cpl. Pedro Cardenas, spokesman for the Marine Corps' Pittsburgh recruiting station.
“It doesn't matter where it's at, if it's bigger than the size of your hand, it requires a waiver,” he said. Marines cannot sport neck or head tattoos.
The Navy prohibits neck, head and hand tattoos, and screens tattoos for content, Smith said. Recruits get screened at the recruiting station and at boot camp, and it's possible for someone to be sent home because of a tattoo, he said.
Another big issue with modern recruits is medical problems, the recruiters said. The generation reaching recruiting age has some of the highest rates of diagnosis for attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and asthma.
“I would say medical, by and large, is the biggest reason people aren't getting in (the Navy),” Smith said.
Another problem keeping out many Navy applicants is their performance on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the recruiters said.
Many applicants don't score high enough on reading comprehension, Smith said.
“Everything we do is instruction, so you have to be able to comprehend things,” he said.