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DoD News Briefing with Dr. David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) at the Pentagon

Presenters: Dr. David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness)
July 11, 2006 04:30 PM EDT
  BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman):   Good afternoon, and welcome.  And thank you for coming at this later hour this afternoon for a topic that I think is very important.

 

            We got into some discussions yesterday when we released our recruiting numbers, which reflected 13 months where each and every component -- service component had achieved their recruiting goals. And as we got on into our discussions, I noticed that you had ever increasing interest.  And so Dr. Chu has agreed to come and talk a little bit in depth about that.  Dr. Chu, as you know, is -- David Chu is the undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and a subject matter expert on this.  And so let me get off the platform here and turn it over to him.

 

            Thank you, sir.

 

            MR. CHU:  Bryan, thank you.

 

            Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  It's a pleasure to be here, particularly because I get to talk about good news.  And the good news, as you know from the statistics released yesterday, is the department continued in the month of June to meet its recruiting goals for all four of the active military services, and for all but two of the Reserve components.  And most importantly in the Reserve components, for both the -- we met the goals -- or have met the goals through the year now for both the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve.

 

            This is a great tribute to the spirit of young Americans today. We recruit for our active forces about 180,000 young Americans a year -- men and women.  We recruit close to 300,000 when you include the Reserve components in those totals.  I think it's an antidote to those who question the willingness of young Americans to put someone else before themselves, to put some larger cause first, it's an antidote to that skepticism about youth and its values to see these numbers and to see their performance in the field.  It's really been extraordinary. These young men and women serving, as you know because you've been there and you've seen that, under often very difficult, trying circumstances, they're serving very well; patient; willing to put up with deprivation, difficult living conditions and, of course, the constant challenge of operating in a counterinsurgency environment, which is not easy.

 

            They've done well, and the fact they've done well I think is a tribute to their qualities, to their high qualities.  This is a group, as you know, for which we set standards that exceed the norms of the American population.

 

            There's been a great deal of talk about the standards.  Let me cover where they come from.

 

            They come out of 30 years of experience with a volunteer force as a great power, since President Nixon ended conscription in 1973.  And in the early years of the volunteer force, as I know you appreciate -- you -- back with in the history books -- we did not have the kind of quality we have today.  In fact, I believe in 1974, '75, only half of the Army's male -- the non-prior service enlistees -- actually, less than that for the males; we only got to half because you count the women in the total, too -- had a high school diploma.  In fact, Congress was so concerned with the aptitude quality of the force in that era, passed a statute that said that we had to recruit a fixed percentage that would be high school diploma graduates and a fixed percentage that should score in the upper half of the mental distribution, as measured by the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.

 

            Well, we easily exceed those standards today.  The standards today come out of a National Academy of Sciences study undertaken for the department in the 1990s that looked at the history of how do people form and the issue of what compensation package will you have to offer in order to recruit that many people of those qualities.

 

            The standards have not changed.  They are not going to change. They are the same.  We aim for the department as a whole to have 90 percent of our new recruits -- meaning without prior service -- be high school diploma graduates.  We aim to have 60 percent score in the upper half of the mental distribution.  As you also know, we aim at high moral standards, which generally means any serious offense and you're disqualified.

 

            Now, in terms of those standards, 90 percent high school diploma graduates -- that means you've finished your high school and you walked across that stage and got a diploma -- is well above national norms, which are in the 80 to 85 percent regime.  Why a high school diploma?  Because it is the best predictor, we've found, over many years of experience, for whether you will stick with us.  With due apologies to our high schools, it does not necessarily mean that you have a particular mental capacity.  That's the purpose of the so- called ASVAB test, Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

 

            And so for your ability to absorb training, your ability to perform on the job, which we've also tested, again with help from the national academy, we have come to the standard that 60 percent should score in the upper half of the distribution.  Of course, by definition, that means you're above the nation as a whole.

 

            And likewise to the moral standards, these are high moral standards.  Many people could not pass these standards.  When you take all these ingredients together, what you have, of course, is the fine cohort of young people -- the same cohort you saw march to Baghdad in the spring of 2003 and whose grit, whose determination, whose skill was celebrated by you and by the nation at that time.

 

            As I emphasized, we believe we should continue with these standards because we think maintaining these standards is essential to our military capability and our military success.  I'm delighted that so many young  Americans are interested in joining, are interested in serving their country.

 

            Equally important and equally striking, as you know from the numbers released yesterday, high proportions want to continue in service.  So we're having excellent retention both in the active components of our military and in the reserve components of our military service.  And we're delighted  by that.

 

            One of the important changes that occurred with the volunteer force of the last generation, of the last 30 years, is a much more experienced force than we used to have.  And we think that's a benefit.  There is also a cost.  It means higher compensation, more family support expenses.  We're delighted to bear those because it gives you a far more effective military in the end, and I think you've seen that effectiveness in the field yourself.

 

            So with that introduction, delighted to take questions.

 

            Again, this is a good-news report.  Obviously, recruiting is a bit like watching a high-wire performer.  It's wonderful that we have done well so far, but there's always the challenge of tomorrow.  So this is a business where you can never lose your focus, you can never stop concentrating on the next challenge.  The next challenge, of course, is meeting the next month's goal, the next month's target in terms of the recruits you'd like to bring in and the people you'd like to convince to stay with us.

 

            So we've done fine so far this year.  We're projecting reasonably good results for the end of the year.  Of course, you'll be back September 30th to grade me and to grade all of us on that performance, and obviously, we will have to stand behind those figures at that time.

 

            With that, delighted to take your questions.  Sir?

 

            Q:  Are you able or ready to predict whether the active duty Army is going to make its ’06 recruiting numbers?  And on the issue of the quality of the recruits, the maximum age has been lifted up to someone's 42nd birthday, I believe, in the Army.  There has been a slight uptick in the number of people receiving morals waivers to  get into the Army.  Could you respond to the notion that the military is making its recruiting numbers because it is accepting volunteers who are inferior to volunteers who may have been accepted in the past?

 

            MR. CHU:  Let me deal with your bottom-line question first and come back to the specifics.  And check me if I leave something out of my response.

 

            The short answer to your question, are we lowering standards to increase recruit flow, no.  The standards are the same.

 

            Q:  Right.  I'm not even asking whether you're lowering standards.  Are you accepting inferior recruits?

 

            MR. CHU:  No is the short answer.  We have from the inception recognized that the measures we employ -- and I think you're particularly talking to the so-called Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test -- the measures we employ don't measure all of a person's abilities.  That's why we are looking both at diploma graduation and the ASVAB test score.  For ASVAB test score itself, we recognized from the beginning that just because you scored low on the test doesn't mean you're going to be a bad soldier or a bad sailor or bad airman.

 

            So for example, the test is given in English.  There is an issue out there with several populations in the United States that if they don't speak English very well, does this test in fact measure their underlying abilities?  Maybe not.  That's why from the beginning, we've allowed some aperture here.  That's why we set the standard that 4 percent could be in what's called mental category 4, meaning the 10th to the 30th percentile of the mental distribution.

 

            I might add, by the way, that we actually re-normed the test in -- starting in fiscal 2005 -- right, Bill?  So it's actually a little tougher now than it was three years ago.  But we did not give ourselves any leeway in that regard in terms of what we look for in our people.  So, no, we are not accepting people of, quote, "lower quality" in terms of what we're doing in these numbers.

 

            Now, you had some specifics in there.  I'm not sure I covered all the specifics that you had.

 

            Q:  Well, I don't know if you're able to predict on whether you --

 

            MR. CHU:  Oh, predict.  I have long learned in this business it's unwise to predict, because my job is to make sure the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Marine Corps succeed.  And so we set the goals for them, we set the parameters, set the standards.  We're always hopeful they're going to make it, but the results have to speak for themselves when we get there.

 

            Sir?

 

            Q:  Staying on the standards, Category 4, which is the lowest acceptable mental category you bring in, Army for many years, 10 or 15 years, took in 2 percent, and they doubled it to 4 percent.  Do you see it going above 4 percent?

 

            MR CHU:  The short answer is no, I don't see it going above 4 percent.  It depends on what you mean by many years.  You have to understand I've been in this business for 30 years.  Let me just read you, if I might, the mental category 4 percentages at the nadir in the volunteer force in 1977.  Now, this is -- well, let me take 1980, which was even worse, when we had misnormed the test, where it was 56 percent.

 

            So I do think on this whole question of standards -- and I came to this department as an appointee in 1981 -- we still were having high percentages of Mental Category IV in that year in the Army.  One does have to take a long perspective.  Yes, 4 percent is twice 2 percent. It is the standard.  And one issue out there, frankly, is should we really permit -- this is a matter of controversy in the department -- should we permit the military service to try too hard, because come back to this issue of does the test measure our abilities.  If I exclude people who might score poorly on the test, but have other attributes that you might want, for example, foreign language capacity, am I really helping the American military?  And that's why we set the standards to say, "Yes, you may have some from this group, but we will set a limit as to how many there are."

 

            Q:  Why the 4 percent?  Why the limit?  I know DOD allows 4 percent.  Congress allows up to 20 percent, is that right?

 

            MR. CHU:  Well, Congress actually set the standard in terms of portion for Mental Categories I-IIIA, if I recall correctly, right, Kurt, isn't it?

 

            STAFF:  There is a 20 percent congressional cap on Cat --

 

            MR. CHU:  On Cat IV, is that right?

 

            Q:  Why not go up to 20?

 

            MR. CHU:  Because we looked at this in the '90s -- the department looked at it, I didn't -- and in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences -- balancing both the pay off to aptitude, which is high on average -- it doesn't mean every specific individual predicts well from that test score -- and the costs of the compensation package decided these -- this is the distribution we should aim at.  That's where the standards came from.  So there was a careful analytic foundation for these standards.

 

            The evidentiary foundation for the standards is a set of tests the department performed in the early 1980s in which we put people of varying test score achievement through their paces, so to speak, in four specialties.  One of them, for example, is Patriot battery operator.  And what the department found from those tests was that there was, as mathematicians say, a monotonically increasing return to aptitude.  So if you -- on average.  So if you score on the test, take the Patriot operator, you find more targets, you identify more targets correctly, you engage more targets with the right procedures and so on and so forth.

 

            Now, does that mean you want everybody at the top?  No.  First of all, there are only so many people who score at the top of this test by definition.  It is after all norm to the national population. Second, the compensation costs of trying to aim there would be prohibitive.  Third, you'd leave out all sorts of other characteristics.  We all know people -- forgive me if I insult anyone with this comment -- who are very bright, but have no common sense. So you want a mix of qualities in your force, whether that mix is individual or that mix is in the force as a whole.  So maybe you have a bright person, you know, who needs a little help getting out of the rain; you have someone with practical qualities who may not do quite as well, especially on the book-learning kinds of things, which to some extent is why they ask that measure --

 

            Q:  The bottom line is 4 percent is about the right number you'd say.

 

            MR. CHU:  You got it.

 

            Q:  And you don't plan --

 

            MR. CHU:  We are not trying to force people -- we never really encourage people to go below 4 percent.  If the services want to do that, well, it's okay as long as they didn't spend a fortune achieving that outcome.

 

            Q:  Yeah, but August and September are going to be the hardest months for recruiting.  They're going to try to bring in higher number during those months.  If you see yourself not making goals, do you think you might say, well, maybe 5, 6 percent?

 

            MR. CHU:  No is the short answer.  And I think -- and I encourage any of you who are curious about the view of our supervisors, talk to some of the sergeants major.  One of the things they have said to us informally is don't lower the quality of the force.

 

            Quality pays off.  Quality pays off in ability to deal with difficult situations.  Quality pays off in ingenuity in solving problems. Quality pays off in figuring out what -- well, what did the lieutenant mean by those orders anyway?

 

            Sir?

 

            Q:  If I can stay with standards, get a couple of reactions from you, one, your reaction to the Southern Poverty Law Center report that there are estimates that thousands of soldiers in the Army are involved in extremist or gang activity?  And also your reaction to reports that recruiters have looked the other way when potential recruits have displayed racist tendencies, either in behavior or on tattoos, because of the urgent need for recruits?

 

            MR. CHU:  Well, let me start with where I come in, which is none of those behaviors are acceptable, from the department's perspective.

 

            Second, I have no evidence of an extent of issue of the sort quoted.  Now I'll certainly look at the Southern Poverty Law Center's report and see what foundation there is.  It's not consistent with the reports I received from the Army specifically, which is the service targeted in that report, if I recall correctly, which reports very few cases of the sort that they allege to have occurred.

 

            And actually, they don't actually assert they have occurred. They assert, in other words, they're just sort of out there someplace. The Army, as I understand it, does an annual survey of its installation relations staff.  They are very watchful for this issue because, again, it is not -- these behaviors are not acceptable.

 

            To the tattoos specifically, you can't enlist if you have a tattoo that's inflammatory, period, regardless of the cover, which is -- really two issues with tattoos.  One is how much of the body is covered.  What about exposed areas?  There the services have recognized reality.  Young people -- not that I would want my children to do this, and we have said no in our household; I would acknowledge that -- but young people, for reasons beyond me, wish to have these tattoos.  You know, at some point, if everybody does it, you're kind of stuck, as -- whether you're a civil employer or you're the military.

 

            But where we do draw the line is the extent of coverage.  So there are various rules.  Each service has a different template as to what it will allow, and there's complaining about that, I would acknowledge.

 

            But they all set a similar standard in terms of anything that's inflammatory.  That is not acceptable.  If you have that kind of tattoo -- this is an easy standard to check -- if you want to enlist, you have to remove it, which I understand is a very painful process. So you have to really want to join.

 

            Yes, ma'am?

 

            Q:  Does the fact that so many soldiers in Iraq have done two or three tours of duty at all reflect that you are having trouble recruiting?  And do you figure it into your percentages?

 

            MR. CHU:  No, I don't think it's because they have trouble recruiting.  I do think the extent of second and third tours is overperceived in the national dialogue.  It's not the typical situation.  Typical person has done -- in fact, many people have not gone to Iraq or Afghanistan in the force as a whole, both active and Reserve.

 

            Second tours are not the norm, at least not thus far.  Yes, lots of people have done it.  It's a big operation, and in some specialities people have done it at higher rates.  But that reflects the demands on the force, in other words, the kind of capabilities that the commander on the ground needs, not any kind of recruiting or retention issue that's out there.

 

            What is interesting to me is that we have not seen a diminution, despite the demands made on the force, in the interest in staying in the service.  And in fact, in the Reserve components we've had a surprising number of people volunteer to be mobilized a second, sometimes a third time.  So we have not had a big issue with having to go back.  It is, again, I think a great tribute to this generation of young Americans that they're willing to serve; they see a larger purpose here.  They are patient with the on-the-ground political process, and they are committed to the success of the operation.  It's really quite heartening.

 

            Sir?

 

            Q:  If these changes you've made in the past year in terms of who you take in, if these changes don't have any impact on the quality of the recruits, then how come you didn't make them earlier?

 

            MR. CHU:  I'm not sure what kind of changes you're referring to. We have not changed our standards in the last year.

 

            Q:  Well, Category 4 -- more Category 4's, more waivers, taking people in with tattoos.

 

            MR. CHU:  No, no -- well, let me emphasize, yes, the Army has taken slightly more Category 4's then it took in the past.  Again, against any kind of historical norm, it's almost imperceptible. Against our standards, it's completely acceptable.  They were exceeding our standard in that period of time.

 

            But the other services' Category 4 exceptions are almost --

 

            Q:  Let's limit the question to the Army, then.

 

            MR. CHU:  Say again?

 

            Q:  Let's just limit it to the Army.

 

            MR. CHU:  Okay, let's look at the Army.  The Army has returned to the standard we set.  We said 4 percent.  So they've come back to that number, having been below it for a considerable period of time.  But it doesn't have any larger significance, in my judgment.  They returned to where they were supposed to be, that's all -- I mean, we haven't changed the standards over this period of time.  The standards are where they were.

 

            If anything, on the moral front -- and this gets to be a complicated issue of what the standards are, who has to approve waivers, and all that sort of thing -- you could argue they've modestly tightened the standards.  So, for example, if I recall correctly, if you have a drunk driving conviction, the Army now requires a flag officer to decide whether or not they are willing to waive that infraction.

 

            I won't ask how many have DUIs here.

 

            Sir?

 

            Q:  Sir, could you talk a little bit about why the age limit was raised to 42, and what sorts of jobs those soldiers would be doing, or troops would be doing?  Are they going to be expected to go through some of the same training as someone who's 18 years old?

 

            MR. CHU:  The short answer is yes, everybody has to meet the same standards.  The physical test standards are -- do have age brackets associated with them, so someone my age doesn't have to meet quite the same standards as a 25-year-old; I would acknowledge that.

 

            Why age 42?  I think the analytic answer is that people are living longer and are much healthier and physically fit into older ages than was true in earlier generation.  And at the same time, the tasks to be performed out there increasingly demand mental abilities and maturity.  And we see that in the service -- (inaudible) -- personnel.  I think it's one of the reasons people are willing to accept the older ages.  The typical reservist is five to 10 years older than the typical active-duty person.

 

            There is a further reason.  Mr. Rumsfeld is about to be -- what is it, Bryan? -- 74?

 

            Q:  Seventy-four.

 

            MR. CHU:  He finds talk of someone at 42 being "too old" disquieting.  (Laughter.)  And so he has been an important force in encouraging us to see the wisdom in allowing those who are a little more senior, but still physically able, to serve.  And that's a further factor in this.

 

            We're not going to have a large number of older Americans join for a whole variety of reasons, importantly, I would argue, because people have their career set by that time; they've found their path, their lane, et cetera.  They're not likely to suddenly change and want to serve.  On the other hand, a few do, and they may be fit, able, and offer the talents that we need, and if so, we're delighted to have them.

 

            And so the extreme case -- which one of you reported on, otherwise I would never have known this case -- is there is a physician, who is, I believe -- back to your question, ma'am -- on his third tour of duty in a combination of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is 75 and doing just fine, thank you very much.

 

            So people are able to function at high physical levels much later in life than was the case 20, 30, 40 years ago.  We need to recognize that reality.  The old age limits were dispiriting to Americans who wanted to volunteer.  I actually had several cases where we had congressional letters of complaint, serious, heart-felt complaint: "Why aren't you" -- you know -- "I have a constituent, a woman's who older, you know, she's 36.  She's a nurse.  She wants to be in the military.  Why won't you let her?"  It was my unfortunate duty to say, "Well, you know, unfortunately -- it's not our policy.  The statute doesn't permit it."  So on, and so forth.  So we changed the statute.

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  We have time for about one more.

 

            MR. CHU:  Sir?

 

            Q:  You had mentioned that the aggregate on retention is pretty good throughout the services.  But I wonder if you could break that apart -- that's the aggregate.  When you break it apart, where are you seeing -- in this most recent report, where are you seeing the flight of people who are not being retained at the level you want?

 

            MR. CHU:  At the broad -- in terms of broad categories, so by period of service, first term, second term, so on, we aren't seeing any disproportionate pattern of losses.

 

            Now, I'm confident -- if you go through a specific career field, a specific year of service, surely you'll find some that fall short of our expectations.  We tend to make it up in other years of a lifetime view of how people serve.  That's why we have the bonus programs is if we think we're not attractive enough for a particular skill, a particular experience level, we will offer a stronger compensation package.  And in general, the services have been successful in making sure that we match our needs -- i.e., skills by years of experience -- with what Americans are willing to do.

 

            So for -- our generalization is that we're not seeing important patterns of weakness.

 

            Yes, people do leave.  Not everybody stays.  And, in fact, to take the Marine Corps as an example -- the Marine Corps doesn't -- forgive me if I insult anyone here who's a Marine -- the Marine Corps doesn't really want a lot of people to stay beyond their first term of service.  It wants a relatively young force.  It's got a very different -- if you like that phrase -- human capital strategy from the other military services.  It's a model that's worked fine for it. That's okay.  And so it doesn't offer as generous a package to continue as the others.

 

            So, yes, there are lots of people who say, "I'm out of here." But when you look from the enterprise level, which is what we must manage, the results are quite good, quite satisfying in terms of retention.

 

            You said one more?

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  (Off mike.)

 

            MR. CHU:  Okay.  You've been patient.

 

            Q:  What does it mean to norm a test?

 

            MR. CHU:  To make sure that it correctly describes the referenced population, meaning in this case, the men and women of the United States who are in the age ranges that we are seeking to recruit.  So we give the test to a sample of young Americans, not necessarily in the military, and we look at the scores and then we say, "Okay. Here's the midpoint -- you know, the average person got this number," and we have a percentile range for all the way down the line.

 

            It's just what the Educational Testing Service -- the same thing people do for SATs and stuff like that.  It's -- it's an abstruse and difficult branch of psychology, I would acknowledge.  In the mid- 1970s, the department goofed and misnormed the test.  And we had a fascinating period of a year or two where the sergeants kept coming in and saying, "You know, these recruits aren't as good as the ones we used to have."  And the policymakers said the tests also were fine.

 

            Well, it turns out the sergeants were right, the test was misnormed, so we had two or three years which almost cost the volunteer force its future in this country -- these two gentlemen participated; they have gray hair for a reason -- (soft laughter) -- almost cost the volunteer force as a national -- instrument of national power because we had so misgauged about the actual quality coming in.  So norming the test, while it's a very technical issue, it was very important to do correctly.  We've been very careful ever since every time we have to renorm it.

 

            You do have to renorm over time, because as the recent results indicate, people are getting somewhat better over time.  You would hope that's true, given the educational system and so on and so forth. And so what is the typical score can change over time.  In this last case, it went up by about two percentage points, right, (Kurt ?) --

 

            STAFF:  Right.

 

            MR. CHU:  -- something like that -- in terms of what you had to score in order to consider the median again or the 60th percentile, 70th percentile.

 

            You all remember your SAT challenge out there in the past.

 

            Thank you very much.

 

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