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Military Attrition: Better Screening of Enlisted Personnel Could Save DOD Millions of Dollars (Testimony, 03/05/97, GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102).

GAO discussed its report on military enlisted attrition, focusing on:
(1) the extent of the attrition problem; (2) the reasons why enlistees
are separated; (3) the adequacy of the data the Department of Defense
(DOD) has available for setting realistic attrition reduction goals; (4)
the savings the services could accrue by achieving their goals for
reducing 6-month attrition; and (5) changes in policy since GAO issued
its report in January 1997.

GAO noted that: (1) more than 14 percent of new recruits leave the
services during the first 6 months, and more than 30 percent leave
before the end of their first term; (2) because of this attrition, the
services lose a substantial investment in training, time, equipment, and
related expenses and must increase accessions to replace these losses;
(3) the main reasons for the high attrition rate during the first 6
months are that: (a) the services' screening of applicants for
disqualifying medical conditions or preservice drug use is inadequate;
and (b) recruits fail to perform adequately because they are in poor
physical condition for basic training or lack motivation; (4) although
the services are greatly concerned about attrition, their goals for
reducing attrition are based on inconsistent, incomplete data and are
unrealistic; and (5) if the services were to actually reach their goals,
however, they would realize immediate short-term annual savings ranging
from $5 million to $39 million.

--------------------------- Indexing Terms -----------------------------

     TITLE:  Military Attrition: Better Screening of Enlisted Personnel 
             Could Save DOD Millions of Dollars
      DATE:  03/05/97
   SUBJECT:  Military recruiting
             Military training
             Military cost control
             Attrition rates
             Enlisted personnel
             Personnel management
             Medical examinations
             Military discharges
             Drug abuse
IDENTIFIER:  Armed Forces Qualifications Test
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================================================================ COVER

Before the Subcommittee on Personnel, Committee on Armed Services,
U.S.  Senate

For Release on Delivery
Expected at 2:00 p.m., EDT
March 5, 1997


Statement of Mark E.  Gebicke, Director, Military Operations and
Capabilities Issues, National Security and International Affairs




=============================================================== ABBREV

  CBO - Congressional Budget Office
  DOD - Department of Defense
  MEPS - military entrance processing stationsMr.  Chairman and
     Members of the Subcommittee: 

============================================================ Chapter 0

I am pleased to be here today to discuss our recently issued report
on military enlisted attrition.\1 At the request of the former
Chairman and the former Ranking Minority Member of this Subcommittee,
we concentrated on attrition that occurs during the training phase,
or the first 6 months.  Let me provide a quick overview of our
findings and then go back and discuss in more detail (1) the extent
of the attrition problem, (2) the reasons why enlistees are
separated, (3) the adequacy of the data the Department of Defense
(DOD) has available for setting realistic attrition reduction goals,
(4) the savings the services could accrue by achieving their goals
for reducing 6-month attrition, and (5) changes in policy since we
issued our report in January. 

\1 Military Attrition:  DOD Could Save Millions by Better Screening
Enlisted Personnel (GAO/NSIAD-97-39, Jan.  6, 1997). 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:1

In summary, we found that more than 14 percent of new recruits leave
the services during the first 6 months, and more than 30 percent
leave before the end of their first term.  Because of this attrition,
the services lose a substantial investment in training, time,
equipment, and related expenses and must increase accessions to
replace these losses.  The main reasons for the high attrition rate
during the first 6 months are that (1) the services' screening of
applicants for disqualifying medical conditions or preservice drug
use is inadequate and (2) recruits fail to perform adequately because
they are in poor physical condition for basic training or lack
motivation.  Although the services are greatly concerned about
attrition, their goals for reducing attrition are based on
inconsistent, incomplete data, and are unrealistic.  If the services
were to actually reach their goals, however, they would realize
immediate short-term annual savings ranging from $5 million to $39

Let me now provide you with some background information and expand on
these points. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:2

The applicants' first contact with the military is with a service
recruiter who prescreens them for disqualifying conditions.  The
applicants are then sent to military entrance processing stations
(MEPS), which are the responsibility of the Military Entrance
Processing Command.  When the applicants are determined to be
qualified, through medical and aptitudinal tests, they are sworn into
the Individual Ready Reserve, in an unpaid status, for up to 1 year. 
Once they are called to active duty, enlisted personnel enter basic
training, which can last from 6 to 12 weeks, depending on the
service.  After basic training, recruits go on to initial skill
training, which can range from a few weeks to more than 1 year. 
(Appendix I displays the process for recruiting and training enlisted

It costs the services between $9,400 and $13,500 in fixed and
variable costs to recruit and train an active-duty enlistee through
basic training.  Considering that DOD recruited more than 176,000 new
recruits in fiscal year 1994, we calculated that DOD invested more
than $2 billion in the recruiting and training of these new

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3

New recruits take an enlistment oath and sign a contract to serve in
one of the military services for a specified period of time,
typically 4 years.  Despite this contractual obligation, DOD data
shows that about one out of every three new recruits fails to
complete the first term.  Over the past
10 years, this attrition rate has remained about the same in each of
the services. 

We found that a significant portion of first-term attrition occurs
during enlistees' first 6 months in the service.  In fiscal year
1994, 6-month attrition rates were 15.7 percent for the Army, 15.7
percent for the Navy, 12.5 percent for the Marine Corps, and 11.6
percent for the Air Force.\2 (See table 1.) This means that in fiscal
year 1994, more than 25,000 new recruits did not remain in the
military beyond the training phase. 

                                Table 1
                    Percentage of Enlistees Who Are
                Separated in the First 6 Months of Their
                              First Terms

Fiscal year enlistees                       Marine      Air        All
entered the services        Army  Navy       Corps    Force   services
--------------------------  ----  ----  ----------  -------  ---------
1986                        10.4  13.1        15.9     10.7       11.8
1987                         9.2  12.7        13.2     10.0       10.8
1988                         9.8  14.4        12.6      9.0       11.6
1989                        10.0  12.8        13.9      9.4       11.3
1990                        10.7  10.1        15.6     10.2       11.1
1991                        13.0  10.2        14.1     10.5       11.9
1992                        12.8  12.9        12.9      9.2       12.3
1993                        15.3  15.8        13.6     11.6       14.6
1994                        15.7  15.7        12.5     11.6       14.4
Source:  Defense Manpower Data Center. 

\2 The Defense Manpower Data Center maintains data on all the
services' enlistees; fiscal year 1994 was the most current year for
which complete data was available. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:4

About 83 percent of the 25,000 who entered the services in fiscal
year 1994 and were separated in their first 6 months were discharged
because they (1) were medically unqualified for military service, (2)
failed to meet minimum performance criteria, (3) had fraudulently or
erroneously entered the military, or (4) had character or behavior
disorders.  Separations for medical conditions and failure to meet
performance standards represent at least 55 percent of all 6-month
attrition for enlistees who entered the services in fiscal year 1994. 
However, this percentage is misleading for two reasons.  First, some
persons who have medical problems are categorized as fraudulent
enlistments because they concealed medical problems.  Second, some
persons who have performance problems are categorized as having
character or behavior disorders. 

Our review indicated that the DOD screening processes were not
working and there were insufficient incentives and checks to ensure
that the services are recruiting qualified personnel.  For example,
recruiters do not have adequate incentives to ensure that their
recruits are fully qualified.  In a sense, recruiters have a built-in
conflict of interest.  Although they are expected to recruit only
fully qualified personnel, their performance is judged primarily on
the number of recruits they enlist per month.  Recruiters' monthly
recruiting goals are established on the basis of the services'
personnel needs, which are in turn driven by end-strength numbers and
budget allocations.  The recruiters' goals are also connected to the
numbers of slots for basic and follow-on training.  That is,
recruiters must keep a steady and constant flow of enlisted personnel
into the services. 

We believe that the services do not provide recruiters with adequate
incentives to ask applicants probing questions that might reveal
disqualifying information.  Asking probing questions leads to two
complications for recruiters.  First, if recruiters uncover
potentially disqualifying information about their applicants, they
create more paperwork for themselves in that they must request
waivers.  Second, recruiters might have to reject applicants who are
not qualified and miss their monthly goals. 

In June 1996, the Navy began to subtract points from recruiters'
quotas when their enlistees did not graduate from basic training. 
While this change appears quite positive, it is too early to
determine its effect on attrition.  Over the years, the Marine Corps
has allowed its recruiting units the flexibility to tie recruiters'
incentive systems to enlistees' successful completion of basic
training.  However, this policy has not been uniformly applied
throughout the Marine Corps, and its incentive system, like those of
the other services, does not appear to provide adequate incentives
for recruiters to screen out unqualified applicants. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:5

Another reason that unqualified personnel are entering the services
and being separated within their first 6 months is that medical
screening, performed by Military Entrance Processing Station
physicians, is not comprehensive enough.  The medical exams do not
detect many problems that later result in early separations.  Around
6,800 of the approximately 25,000 enlistees who entered the services
in fiscal year 1994 and did not complete their first 6 months of
service were found to be not medically qualified.  The services are
enlisting persons with disqualifying medical conditions for two
primary reasons:  (1) applicants knowingly and unknowingly conceal
their medical histories and (2) the services waive medical conditions
that, according to DOD directives, are disqualifying.  One reason
that applicants might not disclose significant aspects of their
medical histories is that the services do not require all applicants
to provide the names of their medical insurers or their past medical
providers.  If applicants report no medical problems, they are not
required to provide any supporting documentation.  Also, the medical
screening forms used to question applicants for their medical
histories contain vague and ambiguous questions and may be easy for
applicants to misunderstand or falsify. 

Another inadequacy of DOD's medical screening process is that DOD
does not have a system for determining which medical conditions
represent good attrition risks.  At present, DOD's physical
enlistment standards are not empirically linked to performance in the
military, but rather are based on military experience and judgment. 
Also, the services now waive many of these physical enlistment
standards.  The Army, for example, told us that the only two medical
conditions for which waivers cannot be granted are pregnancy that
existed prior to enlistment and human immunodeficiency virus.  In
September 1996, DOD funded a project to compile a comprehensive
database of medical conditions for all military personnel.  This
database will enable DOD to reevaluate its physical enlistment
standards, analyze the medical reasons that recruits are separated,
make fact-based policy changes to reduce medical attrition, and
determine the cost-effectiveness of providing more medical tests to
all or selected groups of applicants. 

We also found that as a result of the services' varying drug-testing
policies, more Navy and Marine Corps enlisted personnel were
separated during basic training than was the case with the Army and
the Air Force.  This was because the Air Force and the Army tested
all of their applicants for drugs at the MEPS, before they enlisted,
while--at the time of our review--the Navy and the Marine Corps
tested their applicants at basic training, after they had enlisted. 

In fiscal year 1994, 1,669 recruits were discharged from the Navy
because of drug use.  The Navy offered no waivers for positive drug
tests.  On the other hand, in fiscal years 1995 and 1996, around 70
percent of recruits who tested positive for marijuana at Parris
Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot were granted waivers.  In fiscal
year 1995, 332 recruits tested positive for marijuana at Parris
Island; 231 of these received waivers.  By May of fiscal year 1996,
280 recruits had tested positive for marijuana at Parris Island, and
194 of these received waivers. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:6

More than 7,200 of the recruits who entered the services in fiscal
year 1994 were discharged in the first 6 months of service because
they failed to meet minimum performance criteria.  Basic training
personnel throughout the services told us that these recruits are not
physically prepared for basic training and lack motivation.  Basic
training personnel suggested that recruits might be better prepared
for the physical demands of basic training if they were more fully
informed of the services' physical training requirements and
encouraged to become physically fit before going to basic training. 

All the services now encourage their applicants to undergo physical
training while they await the call to active duty.  However, we
believe that the services could provide further incentives for
applicants to get into good physical shape.  For example, the
services could ensure that applicants have access to military fitness
centers and to military medical treatment facilities if they are

To improve recruits' motivation during training, all the services
have taken actions to improve the basic training environment.  They
have established special units for recruits with motivational
problems and injuries.  Despite these efforts, our interviews with
126 separating recruits suggest that negative leadership techniques
continue to be a factor in recruits' lack of motivation to meet
performance standards.  While all four services have similar
prohibitions on drill instructors' treatment of basic trainees, about
one-third of the separating recruits we interviewed told us that they
were subjected to "humiliating" treatment and that this treatment
contributed to their desire to leave the military.  We were told that
drill instructors frequently used obscene language, although such
language is prohibited by service regulations.  Although we cannot
generalize from our interviews, what we heard from recruits
reinforced Army, Air Force, and Rand studies, which concluded that
negative motivation has a detrimental effect on some recruits' desire
to stay in the military. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:7

While significant savings could be achieved by reducing attrition, we
believe that the services' current goals for reducing attrition are
arbitrary.  That is, DOD and the services do not currently have
sufficient information to determine what portion of 6-month attrition
is truly avoidable.  The danger of setting arbitrary
attrition-reduction goals is that the services could simply begin to
retain lower quality recruits, whom they are currently separating, in
order to meet the goals.  To set realistic and achievable targets for
reducing attrition, DOD and the services need more complete and
accurate data on why recruits are being separated. 

DOD's current data on attrition is inconsistent and incomplete for
two reasons.  First, the services interpret DOD's definitions of
separation codes differently and therefore place enlistees with
identical situations in different discharge categories.  For example,
an enlisted person who cannot adapt to military life is separated
from the Air Force for a personality disorder, from the Navy for an
erroneous enlistment, and from the Army and the Marine Corps for
failure to meet minimum performance standards. 

Second, DOD's separation codes--which represent DOD's primary source
of servicewide data on why people are leaving the services--capture
only the official reason for discharge.  Our analysis of these
separation codes and our interviews with service officials and
separating recruits revealed that enlistees generally have many
reasons for leaving, only one of which is recorded in DOD's database
on separations.  In an attempt to standardize the services' use of
these codes, DOD issued a list of the codes with their definitions. 
However, it has not issued implementing guidance for interpreting
these definitions. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:8

All the services agree that reducing early attrition is desirable. 
To this end, three services have developed attrition-reduction goals
ranging from 4 to 10 percent.  We estimate that if the services were
to reduce their 6-month attrition by 4 percent, their immediate
short-term savings would be $4.8 million per year.\3 If the services
achieved a 10-percent reduction of attrition, their short-term
savings would be $12 million.  In other words, if the services could
screen out 10 percent of those unqualified applicants who are now
being sent to basic training, they could realize immediate savings of
$12 million each year. 

Although the services' goals are arbitrary, they clearly illustrate
that the services could realize immediate, short-term savings because
they would be transporting, feeding, clothing, and paying fewer
recruits.  In some cases, reducing attrition may require that the
services add preenlistment medical tests or more screening mechanisms
to their recruiting and examining processes.  However, we believe,
and the Congressional Budget Office agrees, that these added costs
would be more than offset by the immediate short-term savings.  Even
larger dollar savings could be realized over time as the services
began to reduce the infrastructure associated with recruiting and
training enlistees. 

We derived our estimates by determining the marginal cost of sending
a Navy recruit to basic training and then separating him or her.  We
assumed this cost would be similar for all the services.\4 For
example, the Navy calculates that its marginal cost for each recruit
who is separated from basic training is $4,700 for each male and
$4,900 for each female.  These figures are based on the Navy's
estimate that it costs $83 to transport a recruit to basic training;
$3,650 to pay, feed, and house the recruit while at basic training;\5
$91 to provide the recruit's medical examination at basic training;
$817 to provide a male recruit with clothing ($995 for a female
recruit); and an additional $83 to transport the recruit home after

Over time, the services could save even more money by gradually
reducing the infrastructure associated with recruiting and training
its enlisted personnel.  We estimate that in fiscal year 1996, DOD
and the services spent about $390 million in fixed and variable costs
to recruit and train individuals who never made it to their first
duty stations.  This cost includes both the marginal costs discussed
earlier and the cost of maintaining DOD's recruiting and training
infrastructures.  According to DOD, it costs between $9,400 and
$13,500 to recruit and train an active-duty enlistee through basic
training and an additional $6,100 to $16,300 to train the enlistee in
an initial skill.  Over time, if the services reduced 6-month
attrition by 4 percent, their marginal and fixed cost savings could
be as high as $15.6 million.  If they were able to reduce their
6-month attrition by 10 percent, potential savings for both marginal
and fixed costs could be as much as $39 million. 

\3 The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has agreed with our estimate
of about $5 million in annual short-term savings that would result
from the services' 4-percent reduction of attrition.  CBO calculates
that if the services reduced the attrition that results from
inadequate medical screenings designed to identify pre-existing
conditions, DOD could save $5 million in fiscal year 1998, $5 million
in fiscal year 1999, $5 million in fiscal year 2000, $6 million in
fiscal year 2001, and $6 million in fiscal year 2002.  CBO's
estimates include a calculation of the offsetting costs of adding new
medical screening tests. 

\4 We requested similar cost data from the other three services. 
They were unable, however, to provide us with marginal costs
comparable to those of the Navy because the services (1) calculated
costs differently, (2) captured different data elements, and (3) did
not capture certain data elements that are necessary to calculate how
much it costs to send recruits to basic training and then separate

\5 This calculation is based on the Navy's estimate that the average
recruit remains at basic training 25 days before being separated and
costs the Navy $146 per day. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:9

In our January 1997 report, we made several recommendations to reduce
the attrition of enlisted personnel during the first 6 months of
their terms of enlistment.  Among them, we recommended that the
Secretary of Defense issue implementing guidance on DOD's separation
codes and direct the services to strengthen their recruiter incentive
and medical screening systems.  We also recommended that DOD use its
newly proposed database of medical diagnostic codes to improve
medical screening and move all the services' drug testing to the

The services have taken some action since we issued our report. 
Although it is too soon for us to draw any sound conclusions, we are
intrigued by three initiatives that the Navy says it is undertaking
to (1) strengthen the relationship between its recruiting and
training activities, (2) more accurately define recruit quality, and
(3) change its drug-testing policy. 

Officials within the Navy's Recruiting Command told us that they are
already subtracting a percentage of the incentive points from their
recruiters when their enlistees fail to graduate from recruit
training and adding a smaller number of incentive points to their
recruiters' records when their enlistees graduate.  These officials
also told us that they are seriously considering making more
stringent modifications to this policy.  According to these
officials, a Recruiting Command working group has proposed deducting
total incentive points from a recruiter for all recruits, regardless
of reason, who separate within the first 30 days of recruit training. 
We believe this change, which was scheduled to take effect this week,
follows the intent of the recommendation in our recent report on
attrition that the services more closely link their recruiting quotas
to their recruits' successful completion of basic training. 

According to Navy Recruiting Command officials, the Command is also
attempting to use data maintained at the Navy's Recruit Training
Command to identify all the factors that make a quality recruit. 
Currently, DOD defines a "quality" recruit as one who has a high
school degree and has scored in the upper mental categories on the
Armed Forces Qualification Test.  Despite historically meeting DOD's
benchmarks for quality, all of the services continue to experience
early attrition, thus suggesting that certain elements that make a
quality recruit are not captured in the current standards.  The Navy
hopes to gain a better understanding of recruit quality through this

Navy officials tell us that they will soon be testing applicants for
drugs at the MEPS, as well as at basic training.  They say that,
after reviewing the effectiveness of this change in policy, they may
later eliminate drug-testing at basic training. 

Our recent work with the Army and Air Force indicates that these two
services still see clear lines of separation between recruiting and
basic training.  Officials within these services have expressed
concerns that recruiters should not be held accountable for actions
that occur beyond their control at basic training and later.  The
Marine Corps currently does not operate under a national recruiter
incentive system, but instead provides its regions, districts, and
stations with the flexibility to design their own recruiter incentive
systems.  The Marine Corps intends to implement a national system in
fiscal year 1998. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:9.1

Mr.  Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement.  I would be
happy to respond to any questions that you or the other Members of
the Subcommittee may have. 

=========================================================== Appendix I

   (See figure in printed

   Source:  GAO.

   (See figure in printed

*** End of document. ***

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