Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff, speaks Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Fort Benning, Ga.

Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff, speaks Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Fort Benning, Ga. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

FORT BENNING, Ga. — Top Army leaders are looking at expanding a pilot program launched last month at Fort Jackson, S.C., that provides structured guidance and training to recruit-hopefuls who previously failed to meet academic or physical enlistment standards, service officials said this week.

An official decision to expand the program might not come for several months, but Gen. James McConville, the service’s chief of staff, said Tuesday that initial feedback showed “pretty good success” among the potential recruits participating in the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. It is especially important that the Army get the program right, McConville noted, because of a certain shortfall in its recruiting efforts for fiscal 2022, which will end Sept. 30.

“We're actually moving very quickly” toward expanding the program, McConville said at Fort Benning, Ga., where he attended the Army’s Maneuver Warfare Conference. “We want to make sure that we get it right. And then we want to scale it and expand it — if it gives us the results we want.”

Fort Benning is home to several of the Army’s marquee training programs at the service’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, including initial entrance training for all recruits joining the infantry or Ranger or Special Forces qualification training. The base would be among the new installations to host the program, if it is approved for expansion, officials said. The others would likely include Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, both major initial entrant training posts. Those decisions will ultimately come from the Army’s top leaders including McConville and could come in the late winter or early spring, Army officials said.

The Fort Jackson program launched in early August, allowing individuals to participate in courses to help them raise their Armed Forces Qualification Test scores or help them meet basic physical fitness standards. To meet eligibility requirements, individuals must score a 31 or higher on the AFQT and meet body fat standards — 20-26% for potential male soldiers and 30-36% for potential female soldiers, depending on their age.

Now only some 23% of the Army’s target recruiting market — Americans ages 17 to 24 — meet those minimum standards, down from 29% in recent years. Furthermore, Army data shows only about 9% of that age group has shown interest in military service.

The courses run up to 90 days. Those who achieve their target scores or fitness goal can immediately rotate into a basic training course once they have qualified. The others have three months to meet those standards or they will be dismissed from the course.

The early returns were positive, McConville said. By the end of August — the program’s first month — 75% of the 333 individuals had improved their test scores, according to the Army. Another 73 of 152 students met their body fat goals and transitioned to basic training, the service said.

Hundreds of other students have since entered the course, which has now seen 649 enter the academic program and 225 in the fitness course, Lt. Col. Ebony Calhoun, an Army spokeswoman said Thursday. The Army did not provide updated data on those who have started the program and moved on to basic training.

McConville said some of the students who began in the new program have shown a quick propensity for military life once they graduated into regular basic training. The general said he found it “really interesting” that several recruits who had started in the Future Soldier Preparatory Course were outpacing their colleagues who entered the service without needing the class.

“The fact is that they might have had three, four or five weeks ahead of their cohort coming in,” McConville said. “It’s amazing, you know, all sudden, these young men and women who may have not ever been at the head of the class, all sudden, are way ahead of their [peers] — maybe for the first time.”

In several cases, McConville said, prep course graduates were receiving leadership positions within their boot camp classes.

Down the road, if the program proves successful, the Army could send more and more individuals to such a preparatory course, perhaps including high-scoring recruits, McConville suggested.

He said the Army must balance ensuring the program is built correctly and the service’s dramatic need for new soldiers.

Army officials expect to fall short of their 2022 recruiting goal, perhaps by as many as 10,000 soldiers. U.S. Army Recruiting Command did not respond to a request Thursday for current recruiting data.

McConville and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in July said the recruiting issues could lead to the Army downsizing by some 14,000 active-duty soldiers to a force of about 452,000 by the end of fiscal 2023. The general said Tuesday that recruiting had improved somewhat in recent weeks, but he did not provide new data.

He and other Army officials worry the recruiting shortfall could stretch for several years. But despite those challenges, the general insisted the service would not lower its enlistment standards, as it has done at times to meet its goals.

“We think that quality is more important than quantity,” he said.

Army officials have listed myriad reasons for the recruiting crisis, which has also impacted the Pentagon’s other military services. Among them are a low national unemployment rate, less exposure to military recruiters among high schoolers since the coronavirus pandemic’s beginning, and unfamiliarity with military service among the vast general population.

Wormuth on Tuesday told soldiers at the conference that she believed another factor was parents’ fears for their young adults entering the service based on negative press about issues such as sexual assault, suicide and poor housing conditions. She added it was incumbent upon soldiers to set a proper example for their peers and subordinates and act when something is not right.

“Because of the perception that some Americans have about what they think their kids might encounter in the Army, it is incredibly important that all of you, as young [Army] leaders really focus on doing everything you can to set a positive command climate and make sure that you are doing your part to reduce harmful behaviors in your formation,” she told conference attendees during a question-and-answer session with troops.

McConville said Tuesday that another issue has been American students seem less prepared to move on from high school since the pandemic’s beginning. The general said only about one-third of potential recruits who express interest in service to Army recruiters have passed the AQFT, down from about two-thirds of potential recruits in pre-pandemic years.

Fewer young Americans appear to be participating in athletics since the pandemic, as well, McConville said, contributing to a shortage of physically fit recruit-hopefuls.

“We used to see kids playing a lot more sports, but with [the coronavirus] they're not getting a chance,” the Army chief of staff said. “So, then they're going to need some more help on physical fitness.”

The Army is betting on the Future Soldier Preparatory Course to at least lessen those impacts on the service’s ability to fill its ranks, he said.

“It’s really not [that potential recruits] don't want to serve,” McConville said. “They just need some investment.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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