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Army defends recruit screening process

Critics say lowering standards leads to gangsters in the military

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 11, 2007

WASHINGTON — Defense officials believe they have rules in place to make sure gang members aren’t signing up or being recruited to join the military.

But Scott Barfield, a former gang investigator for the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., said he has seen many recruits with spotty records allowed into the service, with little concern about whether they’ve renounced their gang past.

“It’s all about numbers,” he said. “If we weren’t at war right now, we wouldn’t have the issue we have.”

Barfield said he based that statement on his and colleagues’ observations about gang incidents in the service. But Army officials say they have no evidence that the number of gang members joining or trying to join has increased.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said recruiters question each potential servicemember about any criminal history, and have received training to spot gang or extremist tattoos.

But the FBI’s 2007 report on gang membership in the military states that recruiters aren’t properly trained to recognize gang affiliations, and that gang members may slip through those checks.

“Some gang members have reportedly been instructed by recruiters to conceal past convictions or are told they can enlist as long as they do not have felony arrests,” the report states. “Other applicants enter the criminal justice system as juveniles and their criminal records are sealed and unavailable to recruiters.”

The Army — and the Defense Department as a whole — have come under fire in recent years for loosening recruiting standards in the face of enlistment shortages.

In fiscal 2006, 13,600 Army recruits were issued waivers for various moral and medical issues, up 18 percent from the year before. Eighty-one percent of the recruits had high school diplomas, down 6 percent from the previous year.

Service officials have maintained that the overall quality of the force has not been compromised by the softened recruiting stance.

Army officials said recruits can receive a waiver if they have a history of gang activity, but they must convince recruiters they’ve severed ties with the group.

The Army will give waivers for some “moral issues,” such as a DUI or possession of small amounts of marijuana, but will not consider any recruits with convictions of trafficking drugs or any sexually violent crimes, or anyone with more than one felony conviction, officials said.

Army Criminal Investigation Command officials said of the few gang members they’ve found in the ranks, most are junior enlisted soldiers without any common jobs or skills, and listed their threat to the service and community as minimal.

The FBI report lists at least eight instances in the last three years where gang members have obtained U.S. military weapons.

“Gang members in uniform use their military knowledge, skills and weapons to commit and facilitate various crimes,” the report states.

Barfield said gangsters he has spoken with view the Army as a way to boost their skill set.

“They’re going in as mechanics, truck drivers, medics,” he said. “Think about it — if you [steal] a truck full of electronics, you have to know how to drive it. Medics treat gun wounds, and that is what a gangster is likely to suffer from.

“They know what to do, they know what game to play. Gangbanging is their job. It’s their career.”

Reporter Steve Mraz contributed to this story.


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