STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Retired military leaders worry not enough youth qualify for military service

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

After last week's attacks in Paris, President Barack Obama condemned the terrorists and pledged support to France, saying: "We stand prepared and ready to provide whatever assistance the people of France need to respond." You can listen to his full remarks here:

Obama can make that promise because the U.S. has a strong military, but that might not be something a president can guarantee in the future. More and more young men and women who try to sign up for the military don’t make the cut, according to a recent report. And that has some military leaders like U.S. Air Force Major General Thomas Cutler worried.

"Today, 71% of our young people are not eligible to join the military," says Cutler, "because they can’t pass the entrance exam or they’re not physically fit or they perhaps have crime in their past."

Major General Cutler is part of Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit that is made up of hundreds of retired admirals and generals who are worried about the rising number of young men and women who can’t qualify for the military. They call it a national security threat:

"Our society clearly needs educated young people," says Major General Cutler, "and the military entrance exam is not that terribly difficult and when a large percentage can’t pass it, it’s an indicator of the society at large."

The solution? Start earlier. Much earlier, with more high quality early interventions like preschool.

The Mission: Readiness nonprofit is part of a growing coalition of groups from both the left and the right that want the federal and state governments to pump more money into high quality early education for all kids. 

Start any later, they say, and youth – especially minority youth from low-income backgrounds – will continue to struggle and play catch-up for the rest of their lives.

"Today, 71% of our young people are not eligible to join the military because they can't pass the entrance exam or they're not physically fit or they perhaps have crime in their past." - Thomas Cutler, Ret. Major General

Amy Dawson Taggart is the national director for Mission: Readiness. She says this is about the state of education in our country; it’s not about recruiting toddlers to join the military. "Nobody is trying to put toddlers in camo," jokes Taggart. "We want a strong positive future for every kid in this country. We want every child to grow up to succeed at whatever they chose in life, including a career in the military if that’s what they wish."

The Mission: Readiness findings echo what's happening on the ground at the U.S. Department of Defense. In an article posted on the official U.S. Army website, Major General Jeffrey Snow says the Army will make its current recruitment goal this year, but a shortage is predicted for next fiscal year.

"Even though we will make our mission this year, that does not mean this isn't an incredibly challenging recruiting environment," Snow said. Only 29 percent of Americans, ages 17 through 24, are even eligible to serve in the Army. "This, coupled with the lower unemployment rates, have made it more difficult for the Army to find young people who are both eligible to serve and who have a desire to serve."

Currently, most military recruitment happens in and around high schools. That's where 17-year-old senior Shakee Butler was approached by a military serviceman. The high school senior at the Cody Academy of Public Leadership in Detroit had just finished scarfing down a salami sandwich when a man in a crisp blue U.S. Marine uniform walked up and said, "can I ask you a couple questions?" 

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Staff Sergeant Michael Roberts (right) talks to Cody senior Shakee Butler about why he should consider joining the military.

Butler says sure, and within seconds Sergeant Michael Roberts made his pitch for why Butler should consider joining the military. 

"How great would it be to get out of Detroit, get your education, have a career set for yourself, be able to come back to Detroit and help out the community you live in?" Sgt. Roberts asked. Butler agreed, it sounded pretty good. So Sgt. Roberts started to go through a checklist to see if Butler could qualify: Do you have any tattoos? Allergies to food or medication? What's your GPA? When do you turn 18? What did you get on your ACT? 

A few minutes later, Sgt. Roberts tells Butler that, based on his preliminary checklist, Butler is qualified to consider the military as an option. Butler is pretty geeked by the whole thing. He says he's "fascinated" by the military and has wanted to join the Navy Seals or the Army ever since he was a little kid.

So that's step one for Butler and the countless others who are interested in joining the military. But there are many more steps. In addition to the physical and criminal background check, potential recruits also have to take – and pass – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), commonly known as the military entrance exam. Right now, that’s something more than one out of five Michigan high school graduates can’t do

How do you think you would do on the ASVAB? Here are three sample questions from the official ASVAB website, where you can also find additional questions. 


Salt helps to melt ice because it

 A. dissolves in water to form an acid.
 B. chemically destroys the water molecules.
 C. lowers the temperature at which water freezes.
 D. is attracted to concrete sidewalks below the ice.

Antagonize most nearly means

 A. embarrass.
 B. struggle.
 C. provoke.
 D. worship.

They returned to the beach, where blankets spotted the slope to the water. An advancing wall of clouds, black and gray, darkening the expanse of ground beneath, approached from the west. To the east and above them, the sky remained clear, the sun warm, as if collaborating in the deception.

The "deception" referred to in the passage is that

 A. there is no storm approaching.
 B. the sky is clear in the east.
 C. it is too cold to swim.
 D. the sun is warm.

One in every 9 people in a town vote for party A. All others vote for party B. How many people vote for party B in a town of 810?

 A. 90
 B. 720
 C. 801
 D. 819

(Answers: C, C, A, B)

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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