In Marines, parents are dropout risk

Franklin Smith had a wife and an infant son when he convinced a recruiter in Biloxi, Miss., that he wanted to be a Marine.

For the recruiter, bringing in a family man like Smith was a dropout risk – even greater than recruiting someone with a criminal record, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

In these days of long and repeated warfront tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 10 percent of the male recruits who are married with one or more children, or are financially responsible for a dependent, don't even finish Marine boot camp, according to the Center for Naval Analysis. For women in similar circumstances, the dropout rate jumps to three in 10.

Three-year trends show that recruits who have family responsibilities or did not earn formal high school diplomas are most likely to wash out before they finish initial training. Those recruits also fail more often to complete their first terms of enlistment.

The numbers offer a new slant on recent debates over the Pentagon's acceptance of recruits who have criminal convictions. They suggest that the long slog of war, the Marines' frequent seven-month tours fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, also take a toll on recruits with families.

Leaders know the risks

Smith beat those odds. And during a tour in Iraq last November, he re-enlisted for another four years. But that doesn't mean it was easy.

When Smith, now 28, headed to boot camp four years ago, his son Kristian was a month old.

“It felt a little lonely because you're not at home,” he said. “There's a lot that happens if you're not physically there that you can't get back. … When he first started to walk, his first smile – I missed all those things.”

Smith needed a special waiver from the Marines to enter because he had a family. Marine leaders know that the dropout percentages for such troops are high, but since they represent a fairly small number of recruits overall, commanders often are willing to take the risk.

“I'm not going to argue the statistics, that these folks have a higher attrition rate, but I think we have enough checks and balances,” said Col. Rodman Sansone, the assistant chief of staff for Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

Under the regulations:

Single parents cannot join the Marines. Recruits who are married with one or more children require a waiver to get in, as do recruits who are unwed parents and pay child support.

Recruits who have three or more dependents – which could be a spouse and two children – cannot join the active duty Marine Corps but, with a waiver, can join the reserves.

A key concern, Sansone said, is whether the recruits can meet their bills on a military paycheck, and whether they can deal with the frequent deployments to war fronts where family members cannot join them.

During the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, about 1,400 recruits came in with waivers for dependents, and roughly 1,600 came in with waivers because they did not have high school diplomas. Under Marine Corps regulations, only 5 percent of all recruits per year may be admitted with education waivers – which means they either did not finish high school or received a GED, an alternative diploma.

Those 5 percent are a particularly high risk of leaving early.

Nearly half of all Marine recruits who joined in 1992-2003 and did not have a high school diploma never finished their first term of enlistment – usually a four- to six-year contract.

Finishing the initial training is also a challenge. During fiscal years 2003-2005, more than 26 percent of men and almost 17 percent of women recruits without diplomas never finished boot camp.

An analysis done by the Center for Naval Analyses, however, showed that Marine recruits who require waivers to get in often receive more merit promotions. But recruits without waivers are almost always more likely to finish boot camp than those with waivers.