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More entering Army with criminal records

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 12 percent of Army recruits who entered basic training this year needed a special waiver for those with criminal records, a dramatic increase over last year and 2 1/2 times the percentage four years ago, according to new Army statistics obtained by the Globe.

With less than three months left in the fiscal year, 11.6 percent of new active-duty and Army Reserve troops in 2007 have received a so-called "moral waiver," up from 7.9 percent in fiscal year 2006, according to figures from the US Army Recruiting Command. In fiscal 2003 and 2004, soldiers granted waivers accounted for 4.6 percent of new recruits; in 2005, it was 6.2 percent.

Army officials acknowledge privately that the increase in moral waivers reflects the difficulty of signing up sufficient numbers of recruits to sustain an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq; the Army fell short of its monthly recruiting goals in May and June.

Since Oct. 1, 2006, when the fiscal year began, more than 8,000 of the roughly 69,000 recruits have been granted waivers for offenses ranging in seriousness from misdemeanors such as vandalism to felonies such as burglary and aggravated assault.

Army officials say the majority of such recruits committed relatively minor offenses and have not been in prison. They point out that waivers are granted only after a careful review of each soldier's history -- and only when the applicant has shown remorse or changed behavior.

But former military officials and defense specialists said they fear that enlisting more soldiers with criminal backgrounds will increase the risk of disciplinary problems and criminal activity among soldiers in uniform.

"Somebody who has demonstrated themselves to be guilty of misbehavior in civilian life has a good chance of behaving in the same way in the military," said John Hutson , judge advocate general of the Navy until 2000 and now dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Hutson said he witnessed the consequences of allowing former criminal offenders to join the ranks in the 1970s, the last time the military enlisted high numbers of soldiers with criminal histories. The numbers of recruits with criminal pasts who were allowed to join in the 1970s is not available, according to the Army. But Hutson said such soldiers often showed up in military court for committing new offenses.

"There were all kinds of what I call 'frustration offenses,' " he said, citing drug use, burglary, and violent behavior. "Some people are incapable of coping with the regimen of military life so they act out in all kinds of ways."

Moral waivers must be approved by an officer of the rank of lieutenant colonel or higher and are required when an Army applicant has been found guilty of committing four or more minor offenses such as littering or disorderly conduct -- or two to four misdemeanors such as larcency, trespassing, or vandalism.

Applicants who have committed a single felony such as arson, burglary, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, or marijuana possession must also receive a moral waiver to join. Applicants with more than one felony -- or with a single conviction for a more serious crime such as homicide, sexual violence, or drug trafficking -- are not eligible.

"In most cases we see, the charges were from a period of time when the applicant was young and immature," said a two-page statement from the Army Recruiting Command, based in Fort Knox, Ky., provided in response to queries from the Globe.

"We look at the recent history such as employment, schooling, references, and signs of remorse and changed behavior since the incident occurred as part of the waiver process," the statement said. "The Army does not rehabilitate enlistees who receive waivers; they have already overcome their mistakes."

Allowing former criminals to fight for their country "is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call of duty," the statement said.

But other Defense Department officials maintain that the rise in criminal waivers is also a direct result of the Army's struggle to meet recruiting targets.

"There is terrific pressure put on the recruiters," said Alan Gropman , a professor at the Pentagon's National Defense University. "They have to meet their mission so they request more waivers. In order to make the numbers they have to lower the standards."

Since 2003 the Pentagon has taken unprecedented steps to try to meet its recruiting goals, including lowering education standards, raising the maximum age, and steadily increasing the amount of bonuses for new volunteers. But granting more waivers for criminals, specialists said, could end up backfiring.

One former senior Defense official, who remains a consultant to the Pentagon, said there is growing concern in the ranks that members of street gangs have been joining the military and then engaging in criminal activity.

A spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigative Division said he was not aware of any formal investigation into gang activity in the Army.

But David Isenberg , a senior analyst at the British American Security Information Council, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said studies from past decades indicate that soldiers with criminal histories were more likely to violate military regulations.

"The worse . . . moral background you came from, the lousier job you did, not only in terms of your personal performance but in dragging down unit cohesion," said Isenberg, a Navy veteran.

Even some of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war believe the Army is signing up too many people with criminal histories.

"The military depends on good order and discipline and we should be seeking the type of recruits most likely to fill that profile," said Elaine Donnelly , president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative advocacy group in Washington.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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