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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Carson Botches Military Eligibility Statistic

Ben Carson erroneously said that 71 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds who apply for voluntary military service “are rejected for physical, mental or educational reasons, the vast majority being educational reasons.”

There are two problems with Carson’s statistic. First, the 71 percent figure is an estimated percentage of all youth age 17 to 24 who would be ineligible if they applied to the military. It is not, as Carson said, the percentage of applicants who applied and were rejected.

And second, obesity, not lack of education, was identified as the leading reason for those 71 percent being ineligible. The second leading cause is a criminal record/drug abuse; inadequate education is third.

Carson, a Republican candidate for president, made the comment about military eligibility during an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News on Feb. 23 (at about the 2:40 mark).

Carson, Feb. 23: And when you talk about education, you know, 17- to 24-year-olds who apply for the voluntary military service, 71 percent of them are rejected for physical, mental or educational reasons, the vast majority being educational reasons. This is a national crisis. It affects our security. These are the kind of issues we need to be talking about.

We reached out to Carson’s campaign, but did not get a response. Nonetheless, the 71 percent figure has been widely cited by military leaders and in the media. Just not as Carson framed it.

On June 27, 2014, the Wall Street Journal cited the Department of Defense as the source of an estimate that “71% of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. would fail to qualify to enlist in the military if they tried” because of “physical, behavioral or educational shortcomings.”

As the article makes clear, the statistic is an estimate of the entire population of youth in the U.S. who would be ineligible to serve if they were to apply. The article notes, “The military services don’t keep figures on how many people they turn away.”

Also, despite Carson’s claim that the “vast majority” of the 71 percent ineligibility is due to “educational reasons,” the Wall Street Journal article notes that, actually, obesity is the single biggest reason.

Concerned about Americans ineligible for military service, Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization of more than 600 retired generals and admirals, put out a report in 2009 called “Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve.” David Carrier, a spokesman for Mission: Readiness, said the 71 percent figure was calculated by the group in conjunction with the Department of Defense’s Accession Policy and Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies team.

The estimate relies on a hodgepodge of studies and surveys on health, drug use, education and other impediments to military eligibility. Carrier provided the following breakdown for that 71 percent figure:

  • Overweight/obesity: Nearly one-third, 31 percent, of young people ages 17-24 are too overweight to qualify for military service. Being overweight or obese is the largest medical disqualifier, and the largest overall disqualifier when looking at young people who are ineligible for a single reason. The source is a Department of Defense analysis of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Another independent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled “Unfit for Service,” found that obesity is a growing problem, and that as of 2007-08, 11.7 percent of military-aged men and 34.7 percent of women of military age exceeded the U.S. Army’s enlistment standards for weight-for-height and percent of body fat.
  • Crime/drug abuse: Ten percent of young Americans ages 17-24 have a criminal record that disqualifies them from service, and 30 percent have a history of drug use that would disqualify them, according to a Department of Defense analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Education: Among young adults who finish high school, 23 percent who seek to enlist cannot score highly enough on the military’s exam for math, literacy and problem-solving to join the military. That is based on a study of nearly 350,000 high school graduates ages 17-20 who applied for entry into the Army and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery — the military’s entrance exam –at a Military Entrance Processing Station.

Unlike the first two figures, which look at the entire U.S. population, the figure on those deemed ineligible to serve due to educational shortcomings is derived from young adults with an interest in joining the military. The report warns that this group is, therefore, self-selected and “not representative of individuals across or within states and the nation.”

While Carson botched the statistic, he did touch on an issue of grave concern to military and education leaders.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, published a 2010 report titled “Shut Out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for Today’s Army.” The authors noted that the finding that nearly a quarter of high school graduates who applied for the Army were educationally ineligible is troubling for the military, but also serves as an indictment of the education system in general.

Education Trust report, December, 2010: These findings are troubling for the young people themselves. Because they are ill-prepared academically they are denied opportunities for service, growth, and learning. And the findings are troubling for our nation. Now—more than ever—we need a military prepared to out-think, as well as out-fight, our adversaries.

But the findings should trouble high school educators most of all, because this shatters the comfortable myth that academically underprepared students will find in the military a second-chance pathway to success.

In response, Mission: Readiness has become a strong advocate of pre-kindergarten education.

Carson would be correct to say that military leaders are concerned about the educational readiness of high school graduates, but the statistic he cites doesn’t support his claim that the vast majority of military applicants are rejected, most for educational reasons.