The U.S. Army today faces an imminent and menacing threat to our national security. We are engaged in a struggle that will determine our future. Failure to resolve this problem could leave us vulnerable and our enemies victorious.
The threat? The lack of fully qualified young people to serve in the military.
Many young Americans are willing to serve but too little is made of the declining number of young people who are qualified to serve. This is the real story and it’s a shocking one. Only 28 percent of the 17- to 24-year-old population qualifies to wear a military uniform. The other 72 percent fail to meet minimum standards on education, character and health. The problem gets worse. Of those eligible to serve, a significant part chooses not to for a variety of reasons.
Faced with these declining numbers, we have two choices: Lower the military admission standards or raise the health and education standards for our young people.
As the commander responsible for recruiting, training and educating U.S. Army soldiers, I believe the choice is obvious: we must declare war on poor education, lack of fitness and poor health and help foster future generations of educated and healthy young Americans. Here is our plan.
First, we are working to create better educated young people. The Army has always been a vehicle for advancement in America. In past years, soldiers who served were sometimes given land grants. In today’s Information Age, education is the greatest means of mobility. Today, soldiers take part in lifelong learning. Initiatives like the Distributed Learning Education and Training Programs offer soldiers the chance to be in the classroom even while they prepare for the battlefield.
Still, we need to reach people at a younger age to encourage educational achievement. While still not optimized in some states, we continue to promote Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and National Defense Cadet Corps programs.
Participating students have higher attendance and greater graduation rates than their peers and are also exposed to 120 hours of physical activity and leadership assessment training. Because most of these kids will go on to careers outside the military, our society as a whole benefits as their discipline and determination will serve them and their country well beyond their high school years, regardless of career choice.
The Army is also investigating the opening of the first “Army Preparatory School” to help non-high school graduates get caught up on fitness while becoming academically eligible for the military. We are taking these simple steps because we believe they will have a profound impact on educating our nation’s youth.
Second, we are working to create healthier young people. The military has always been a catalyst for health care. World War I stimulated efforts to improve nutrition and World War II led to the publication of nutritional information on products. Today, our health challenge with young people isn’t lack of food but too much of it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the number of overweight children tripled between 1963 and 1999. With poor nutrition habits leading to spiraling health care costs due to high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke, we all suffer.
We are facing a challenge in the declining number of qualified young people for military service. The military can’t win this war alone. It will take the effort of all Americans — particularly those in government, business and education. By coming together to raise awareness about this issue, we can raise the bar for better education and better health. That will lead to a stronger and more capable military and a better America.
Gen. William S. Wallace is commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.