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With its recruiting pool shrinking, the U.S. Army tries something new: pre-boot camp tutoring

 Staff Sgt. Jonathan Tenorio tutoring a recruit with a white board in math between formal classes.
Jay Price
/
WUNC
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Tenorio tutoring a recruit in math between formal classes.

The U.S. Army is in a recruiting crisis.

Its recruiting year ends at the end of September, and it’s thousands of enlistees short of its goals, despite signup bonuses of up to $50,000 and unheard-of incentives like allowing recruits to pick where they're first stationed.

So the Army is trying something else: the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. It is kind of pre-boot-camp boot camp.

The concept is simple: The Army hopes to give potential recruits who are just short of meeting its physical or academic standards the small boost they need.

The Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, features a lot of one-on-one instruction. For example, between formal classes, one instructor, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Tenorio, set up a white board outside a building to help students with multiplication.

“Everyone’s different, so they adapt to what they can do," Tenorio said. "Some people would add the zeros to fill in the blanks, some people don’t.”

Meanwhile, dozens of students in black Army workout shorts and t-shirts are sprawled nearby, camouflage hydration packs tossed aside and pencils out. They're helping each other with equations.

Camouflage hydration packs sit next to notebooks and folders
Jay Price
/
WUNC
The Camouflage hydration packs of members of the Future Soldier Prep Course sit next to notebooks and folders.

One of those students is Damian Chapa from San Diego, Texas, who has 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. Chapa keeps scoring a 30. His explanation is one recruiters have been hearing a lot.

“During COVID time, I was not able to learn well,” he said. “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 I would be able to understand it for the test.”

Now that 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 creation of the program.

Young recruits in the Future Soldier Prep Çourse are gathered in a circle studying in between classes.
Jay Price
/
WUNC
Young recruits in the Future Soldier Prep Çourse studying between formal classes.

He said most of the recruits in it likely would have qualified without help just a few years ago.

“These are folks who are, because of life circumstances, just on the margins of meeting the quality marks we want in our Army,” he said. “From a physical fitness perspective and from an academic perspective.”

A big part of the recruiting problem is that 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 that Army leaders blame on distance learning during the pandemic.

Michaelis said the shrinking pool presents a challenge: "How do I expand that back out to where it needs to be?”

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.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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