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The Army's recruiting is falling short, so now it's taking a different approach

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Army is in a recruiting crisis. It's thousands of enlistees short for this recruiting year, and that is despite big sign-up bonuses and other incentives. So now the Army is trying something else. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Fort Jackson, S.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: It's a kind of pre-boot camp, boot camp. The idea behind the Future Soldier Prep course is simple - give potential recruits who are close to meeting Army standards for written test scores or weight the small boost they need. And that means...

JONATHAN TENORIO: You can use your fingers - plus three?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Twenty-one?

PRICE: ...A lot of one-on-one instruction. Between formal classes, an instructor, Staff Sergeant Jonathan Tenorio, has set up a whiteboard outside a classroom building to help students with multiplication.

TENORIO: Everyone's different, so they adapt to what they can do. Some people would add the zeros to fill in the blanks. Some people don't. So we show them all the ways possible to do that. But whatever works for them will suit them better.

PRICE: Dozens of students in black Army workout shorts and T-shirts are sprawled nearby, camouflage hydration packs tossed aside and pencils out, helping each other with equations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So forget that. Forget that one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So it would be six.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So it would be four - yeah - five, six.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And then four and...

PRICE: One is Damian Chapa of San Diego, Texas, who's been trying to get a high enough test score for two years. Army recruits need to score at least 31 on the written exam called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and Chapa kept scoring 30. His explanation is one recruiters have been hearing a lot.

DAMIAN CHAPA: During COVID time, I was not able to learn too well. I slowed down my learning by a lot because I wasn't able to ask questions in class, how to do certain things and how to work out certain problems so that I could be able to understand it for the test.

PRICE: Now Chapa has finally made it into the Army, at least temporarily. The military is paying, housing and feeding him and several hundred other recruits for up to 90 days while they get tutoring to help lift their scores that last little bit. A separate group, which began with between 2- and 6% more body fat than Army standards allow, is getting an intensive program of diet and exercise. Brigadier General Patrick Michaelis helped oversee the creation of the program. He says most of the recruits in it likely would have qualified without help just a few years ago.

PATRICK MICHAELIS: These are folks who are - because of life circumstances, are just on the margins of meeting the quality marks who we want in our Army, both from a physical fitness perspective and then from an academic perspective.

PRICE: A big part of the recruiting problem is the number of young Americans even eligible to enlist has shrunk to just 23%. Key reasons include a long-term rise in obesity rates and a recent drop in test scores Army leaders say it's related to distanced learning during the pandemic.

MICHAELIS: That shrinking pool, how do I expand that back out to where it needs to be?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Keep multiplying to see where...

PRICE: Maybe with just a few small nudges.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: But can 52 go into 336?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK. So I got it. All right.

PRICE: Early results are encouraging. After three weeks, 75% of the first academic class improved their test scores enough. And after 11 days, almost half the recruits in the weight loss class hit their goals and were able to ship out to basic training. If the pilot program continues to show good results, the Army hopes to expand it to several other training bases. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Jackson, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.