An all-honors student and varsity soccer player, Luc LaChance could have had his pick of colleges when he left Slippery Rock High School in Butler County.
Instead, he chose to enlist with the U.S. Marines, where he will be trained as an infantryman – what the 17-year-old describes as “the common soldier.”
Eric Enslow, a 25-year-old Shaler Township resident with a master’s degree, joined the Navy after an exhaustive search for teaching jobs in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
His choice in the military was an intelligence job, which he was denied because of student-loan debt.
Sarah Szczypinski of Crafton, Allegheny County, missed the threshold to apply to be an Army officer by one point on the armed services aptitude test.
The 23-year-old, who had earned a biology degree, thought the recruiter might submit a waiver to get her into officer candidate school. Instead, she was told to take the test again in six months or enlist.
“I was a little devastated,” said Szczypinski, who enlisted and left Nov. 12 for basic training.
Each of these Pennsylvanians are high achievers who might have expected to walk easily into the military service job of their choice. But, as the U.S. military brings troops home from Afghanistan and reduces the number of recruits for budgetary reasons, services that once were thought to be the employer of last resort are now being much more selective.
“Most people come to join the military when things get rough in their life,” said Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Avery. “It’s an eye-opening experience when they come to the recruiting station, and our standards are higher than most of the companies out there in corporate America.”
Fewer military jobs in addition to the already dim economic climate for 16- to 24-year olds – for whom the unemployment rate is more than double the rate in the general population – is especially troubling in Pennsylvania. The state has long been a top recruiting ground for the armed forces, and many now see that route to employment cut off.
From the Marine recruit who wanted to put farm and factory jobs behind him to the future airman whose single mother couldn’t send him to college, there was still an option in the armed services. But the tightening of standards held true as both candidates faced delays and upsets along the way.
The U.S. military ballooned over the last decade of overseas conflicts, but troop levels have fallen by more than 48,000 since 2010. That leaves them at about 1.38 million, on par with the nation’s armed forces before the 2001 attacks.
And that’s just the beginning: The four combat branches will absorb significant reductions by 2017. The Army and Marine Corps plan to lessen the force by a combined 100,000 personnel.
Avery, the Navy chief recruiter for Pennsylvania and parts of three bordering states, was told to find 400 fewer recruits than the previous year, the “most drastic” cut in 10 years, he said.
The cuts are making waves in recruitment.
During the height of the Iraq War, the Army accepted plenty of people without high-school diplomas and the Marines allowed more people with histories of misconduct.
Not so today. The recruiters are looking for top students and star athletes.
They canvass high-school lunchrooms, job fairs and shopping plazas for quality candidates. They dive right into questions about health and fitness, grades, brushes with the law and other personal information to screen people out on the spot.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Eichler, who oversees three Marines recruiters in State College, Altoona and Dubois, said his team conducts up to 100 interviews a month. Out of that number, they typically enlist five or fewer.
“There’s not a lot of spots for young men and women to come in, so we’re looking for the best,” he said. “We’re trying to find the most intelligent, most moral and ethical people out there.”
Now, 99 percent of recruits have high-school diplomas. Teens are sent away for being overweight, having tattoos, Cs in science and even dirty ears. (Though they can come back after their ears have been cleaned.)
The Pentagon estimates that 75 percent of 17- to 24-year olds are not eligible to serve in the military. Those who are often find roadblocks in higher standards.
Owen Craig, the Marine recruit who worked farm and factory jobs near Lewistown, said he waited 15 months to be sworn in, all because of a dragon tattoo on his leg that led to a lengthy waiver process.
Enslow, the Navy recruit, said he was told his high debt-to-income ratio disqualified him for a job. “My conclusion is I would be seen as too much of a national security liability,” he said.
He was eventually assigned to nuclear-power maintenance.
By Jan. 1, female Marine recruits will find higher physical requirements. They must be able to complete three pullups, equal to male Marines and an increase from the 15-second flexed-arm hang that was the standard for them before.
Lt. Col. Michael Fenimore, Air Force commanding officer of the 314th recruiting squadron, which covers eastern Pennsylvania, said it’s vital that recruits meet a certain aptitude.
“We are a profession of arms, and we need to know people serving next to us meet those qualifications,” he said.
The military is upping its recruiting game, too. The Navy now hires Fortune 500 companies to teach sales to its recruiters, Avery said.
Army Sgt. Andrew Parkerson and his recruiting team based in the Monroeville Mall added a live-scan fingerprint machine to the office in 2011 to thoroughly check criminal records, and they use a 200-question medical screening to see who might be qualified.
The sergeant has seen a broken toe raise red flags.
“We don’t fix people with injuries and we don’t rehabilitate people with the law,” he said. “We’re going to take people who are qualified to be a soldier … I’m proud of the fact that people aren’t qualified for the Army.”
Young people in Pennsylvania and nationwide are experiencing a drought of opportunity, which is only magnified by military cutbacks.
The military accounts for roughly one out of every 100 jobs. Though, for the population that tends to join the military – predominantly young, white men with only high-school educations – military jobs could be 10 times more important, said Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a policy research organization in Harrisburg.
“Young people for whom the military was sometimes the best option actually face a double whammy right now because of military cutbacks and because of federal and state policies that shrink good jobs for young people without a college degree,” he said.
Herzenberg did cite the state’s new transportation bill for its potential to create jobs for some of the same people who might be considering the military.
However, he said rising college costs, the loss of manufacturing jobs and wage stagnation compound problems for this group.
Education is another concern.
Students are entering and leaving high schools underprepared, said Christina Theokas, research director of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group.
The group’s 2010 “Shut Out of the Military” study reported about one in five high-school graduates does not meet the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test known as the ASVAB, to enlist in the Army. Minorities usually perform worse.
“The reality is, if they can’t meet that bar, they are clearly underprepared in reading, math and problem-solving skills,” she said. “It’s going to make getting any job difficult.”
Educators should take notice, Theokas said.
“High schools have thought the military is that back-up plan for kids who aren’t doing so well,” she said. “That’s really never been true … We can’t continue the fallacy that it’s an option available to everyone.”
Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PublicSource is an investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org.