Overweight, tattooed, stoned? The Pentagon may still want you
By W.J. HENNIGAN | Los Angeles Times (TNS) | Published: November 4, 2016
The new U.S. military wants you -- even if you're overweight, covered in tats and stoned on weed.
The Pentagon is considering that recruiting pitch as it scrambles to keep up with America's changing social mores and strives to attract the tech-savvy talent it needs to fight future wars.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced a broad review of recruiting standards this week, saying he wants to ensure that rules are not “unnecessarily restrictive” on issues like fitness, tattoos, marijuana use and letting single parents enlist.
“We're going to review and update these standards as appropriate,” Carter said Tuesday in a speech to Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets at the City College of New York.
“Now, some of these things we’ll never be able to compromise on,” he added. “And we will always have to maintain high standards. But at the same time, these benchmarks must be kept relevant for both today’s force and tomorrow’s, meaning we have to ensure they’re not unnecessarily restrictive.”
The review reflects recognition, in part, that the all-volunteer military may rely less on ground infantry operations in the future and more on desk-bound analysts, robotics operators, software engineers and cyberwarriors.
It also reflects the fact that a growing number of states have legalized marijuana sales, even though the federal government has not, and that some branches of the military already have eased their tattoo bans.
The recruitment review marks the latest step by the Obama administration to push the tradition-bound, male-dominated Pentagon onto a more modern footing.
Over the last year, the Pentagon has opened combat positions to women, given gay and lesbian service members protection from discrimination and lifted bans against transgender men and women serving openly in the military.
Some military leaders and outside critics say the Pentagon is moving too fast on these initiatives. And the next president is almost certain to pick a new secretary of Defense, so Carter’s recruitment review may yet get sidelined.
“The Pentagon is in a bind because there is a shrinking number of people that meet all their criteria, but there are certain standards that shouldn’t be jettisoned just because we need recruits,” said Phillip Carter, a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security in Washington. “There’s a balance to be struck.”
For now, all the uniformed services are meeting their recruiting goals, and there is no plan to expand the current force, which totals 1,281,900 active-duty members and 801,200 in the reserves.
But Secretary Carter wants more young people to consider joining who may not meet current enlistment standards. The majority of those who now apply are rejected due to health, drug use and other problems.
More Americans than ever before are overweight or obese, for example. Though no one suggests easing body-mass standards for active-duty soldiers, the Pentagon may allow portly, paunchy and potbellied recruits to enlist — and then whip them into shape in boot camp.
“Some of the fitness standards can be addressed in remedial fashion after recruiting,” said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.
“I'm less happy about relaxing them definitively, though there's a reasonable debate to be had even about that,” he added.
Under Pentagon rules, anyone who reports to a processing center for boot camp and tests positive for illegal drug use is rejected. Some services go further, refusing to enlist anyone who admits to previous recreational drug use.
That has created clear obstacles in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C., where recreational marijuana is now legal, and 20 other states that permit its medicinal use.
California, Arizona, Nevada and six other states will consider ballot initiatives on Tuesday to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, potentially making pot legal in much of the country.
Tattoos also are more common. Nearly half all Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s sport at least one tattoo, according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive Inc. in February.
Recruits are checked for tattoos at initial physicals, and each service has its own rules. Symbols such as swastikas or gang signs are explicitly forbidden. Face, neck and hand tattoos are largely barred as well.
In April, the Navy announced it would allow sleeve-length arm tattoos and, in some cases, tattoos on the hands and neck. Last year, the Army eliminated a rule that limited soldiers to four tattoos below the elbow or knee, each smaller than the wearer's extended hand.
Easing tattoo restrictions will give recruiters more leeway to accept recruits for cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence and other fields that may attract hackers and others not traditionally drawn to military service.
Carter has made a priority of trying to modernize the military. After taking office in 2015, he opened the Pentagon’s first office in Silicon Valley to highlight his focus on finding cutting-edge military technology and the people to develop and operate it.
“As technology evolves, the military may need a different type of soldier for certain jobs,” said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation who studies the future of war. “The guy with a crew cut is not always the best for the job. Sometimes you need some weirdos on your team to get things done.”
The military likes to portray itself as a trailblazer on social issues, although the record is mixed.
The armed forces were racially segregated until 1948, when President Truman signed an order requiring equality of treatment and opportunity in the military without regard to race. Discrimination persisted for decades afterward, however.
Women were not allowed into the service academies until 1976 and were barred from flying on combat missions or serving on combat ships until the 1990s.
The Pentagon ended its transgender ban in July after a one-year review. That was after the Departments of Justice and Education ordered schools that receive federal funding to ensure the civil rights of transgender students.
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