The Army is entering a new fiscal year with the active component likely understrength by about 10,000 soldiers amid a major recruiting crisis, but all hope isn’t lost for service officials as its headline initiative to address the shortfall continues to enjoy early success.

The Future Soldier Preparatory Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, is intended to help expand the pool of recruits who have a chance to join the Army while simultaneously sticking to entry standards, senior leaders argue. It’s currently a pilot program, but service officials have indicated that they are likely to expand it.

Army Times visited the course for two days in August for a first-hand perspective on the service’s most ambitious accessions experiment since the surge years of the Global War on Terror.

The three-week pre-basic training course offers two tracks for applicants who previously had too much body fat to join — up to 6% more than the standard for their respective age and gender — or whose scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test would have required them to have an approved waiver to enlist.

Prep course students enlist on open contracts and receive full pay and allowances while they participate in the course. When they meet Army standards by either passing the AFQT or losing body fat, they renegotiate their contracts and move on to basic training.

Those who do not meet the standards after 90 days are discharged with an entry level separation that will allow them to someday rejoin if they continue progress towards the standards back in the civilian world.

And according to updated data provided by Center for Initial Military Training spokesperson Lt. Col. Randy Ready in late September, the pilot program is showing promising results.

The spokesperson said approximately 75% of trainees across the course’s two tracks graduate “after three weeks” in the program. Ready indicated that around 874 trainees are currently participating in the program — 649 in the academic track, and 225 in the fitness track.

A spokesperson for the service’s personnel directorate, Lt. Col. Joseph Payton, told Army Times that as of Sept. 23, a total of 680 troops have graduated from the program and moved on to basic training. Of those graduates, 149 have completed the fitness program and 531 have completed the academic track.

Earlier data offers additional details. Fort Jackson spokesperson LA Sully told Army Times in August that the earliest group to go through the academic track enjoyed an average AFQT score increase of 19.8 points.

The AFQT is scored on a 1 to 99 scale that corresponds to a test taker’s performance relative to their peers.

If an applicant gets a score of 41, for example, that means the individual scored better than 41% of test takers. But that scale wasn’t calibrated for the crushing weight that the COVID-19 pandemic put on the American school system.

A joint memo signed by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville in July said “preliminary data suggests remote schooling may have lowered overall [aptitude test] scores by as much as 9 percent.”

How the program is working

According to officials involved with the effort, one of the key factors helping trainees succeed is a tempered training approach that departs from the classic “break them down to build them back up” attitude that drill sergeants bring to typical basic training cohorts.

Those running the course — from the two Special Forces officers leading the battalion and brigade overseeing it to Army senior leaders — say that’s on purpose.

Col. Kent Solheim, who commands the 165th Infantry Brigade, explained that prep course cadre took intentional steps to reduce the “intimidation factor” with trainees and create an adult learning environment. Part of that environmental change meant trading in their classic brown campaign hats — common headgear for drill sergeants — and instead donning simple black caps similar to those worn by instructors at the Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.

For the academic track, trainees are studying the Basic Skills Education Program curriculum, which the service has long used to help already serving troops improve their test scores to increase their career opportunities.

A mix of Army civilians, contractors and uniformed instructors are teaching the courses while the Army works to secure more contractors to join the fledgling “campus environment” in the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry complex at Fort Jackson.

Recruits hoping to shed fat or improve physical training test scores are put through a full-fledged fitness instruction program that goes beyond twice-daily PT sessions.

Army Times watched a medical provider teach trainees about macronutrients and reviewed lesson plans meant to provide foundational instruction on building a healthy lifestyle for body and mind — such as drills meant to teach proper running form and one-on-one coaching sessions with nutritionists and dietitians.

Officials explained the concept is based around existing mechanisms for reconditioning basic training troops after injuries, as well as the broader Holistic Health and Fitness program that the service is implementing across the active duty force.

An answer for recruiting woes?

Senior Army officials have stated they see the prep course as the service’s most promising initiative to address recruiting shortfalls that may be driven by a sudden collapse in the percentage of young Americans who meet requirements to join the military.

Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex, the top enlisted soldier for Army Training and Doctrine Command, said publicly in September that the number of applicants who walk into recruiting stations — approximately 110,000 — hasn’t dropped.

What’s changed is how many are eligible to join.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he explained, around 40% of walk-in applicants were disqualified within 48 hours of inquiring with a recruiter.

Since then? That instant disqualification number has ballooned to 70% of applicants, largely due to legal marijuana use, a drop in AFQT scores and the worsening childhood obesity epidemic, he said.

The prep course is targeted to help those on the margins who are struggling with mild obesity or who may have had a bad AFQT score after their final two years of schooling were disrupted by COVID-19. If implemented at scale, senior leaders hope, they can cut down on that instant disqualification rate and offer a new path for young Americans to meet the Army’s standards and enlist.

The senior enlisted soldier in the Army’s personnel directorate, Sgt. Maj. Mark Clark, told Army Times in a phone interview that prep course applicants can’t have any disqualifying conditions beyond their fitness or test score.

“They don’t have any medical or any types of criminal backgrounds that will prevent them from joining,” he explained, adding that the course “gives them an opportunity to still serve their country.”

Clark framed the initiative as the service recognizing “the societal changes that have happened as a result of COVID.”

While it’s unlikely that the trends that sparked the prep course will reverse, service officials are still working to determine how much they want to expand it.

In late August, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville indicated the Army intends to increase the number of slots for the course at Fort Jackson and “could see” it expand to other training installations. But no decision has been announced as of yet.

Military Times editor-at-large Todd South contributed to this report.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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