Military Attrition: Better Screening of Enlisted Personnel Could Save DOD Millions of Dollars

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                             United States General Accounting Office

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

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

                             Better Screening of Enlisted
                             Personnel Could Save DOD
                             Millions of Dollars
                             Statement of Mark E. Gebicke, Director, Military
                             Operations and Capabilities Issues, National Security and
                             International Affairs Division

                   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.

                   In summary, we found that more than 14 percent of new recruits leave the
Results in Brief   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 million.

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

                   The applicants’ first contact with the military is with a service recruiter
Background         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,

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

                   Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                                         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 personnel.

                                         New recruits take an enlistment oath and sign a contract to serve in one of
A Significant Amount                     the military services for a specified period of time, typically 4 years.
of Attrition Occurs                      Despite this contractual obligation, DOD data shows that about one out of
Within the First                         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
6 Months                                 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   Fiscal year enlistees
Their First Terms                        entered the services          Army       Navy      Marine Corps         Air Force      All 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.

                                          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.

                                         Page 2                                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                        About 83 percent of the 25,000 who entered the services in fiscal year 1994
Screening Processes     and were separated in their first 6 months were discharged because they
Do Not Identify         (1) were medically unqualified for military service, (2) failed to meet
Thousands of Recruits   minimum performance criteria, (3) had fraudulently or erroneously
                        entered the military, or (4) had character or behavior disorders.
Who Are Unqualified     Separations for medical conditions and failure to meet performance
for Service             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

                        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

                        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

                        Page 3                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                        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.

                        Another reason that unqualified personnel are entering the services and
Thousands of Recruits   being separated within their first 6 months is that medical screening,
Are Found to Be Not     performed by Military Entrance Processing Station physicians, is not
Medically Qualified     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.

                        Page 4                                                    GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                        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.

                        More than 7,200 of the recruits who entered the services in fiscal year 1994
Thousands of Recruits   were discharged in the first 6 months of service because they failed to
Are Discharged for      meet minimum performance criteria. Basic training personnel throughout
Failure to Meet         the services told us that these recruits are not physically prepared for
                        basic training and lack motivation. Basic training personnel suggested that
Minimum                 recruits might be better prepared for the physical demands of basic
Performance Criteria    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 injured.

                        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

                        Page 5                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                          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.

                          While significant savings could be achieved by reducing attrition, we
DOD’s Data Does Not       believe that the services’ current goals for reducing attrition are arbitrary.
Allow the Services to     That is, DOD and the services do not currently have sufficient information
Set Realistic Attrition   to determine what portion of 6-month attrition is truly avoidable. The
                          danger of setting arbitrary attrition-reduction goals is that the services
Goals                     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

                          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.

                          Page 6                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                         All the services agree that reducing early attrition is desirable. To this end,
DOD Could Save           three services have developed attrition-reduction goals ranging from 4 to
Millions of Dollars by   10 percent. We estimate that if the services were to reduce their 6-month
Reducing Attrition       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

                          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.
                          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 them.
                          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.

                         Page 7                                                                           GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
                     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.

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

                     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

                     Page 8                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
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 initiative.

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.

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.

Page 9                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
Appendix I

Process of Recruiting and Training Enlisted

(703194)       Page 10                GAO/T-NSIAD-97-102
Ordering Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 6015
Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (301) 258-4066, or TDD (301) 413-0006.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information on
how to obtain these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with "info" in the body to:


or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:


United States                       Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office      Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001           GAO
                                 Permit No. G100
Official Business
Penalty for Private Use $300

Address Correction Requested