The Army is desperate for smart, fit soldiers. How these $200M fit camps get recruits into shape.

WASHINGTON – Patricia Limbaga’s recruit-cute moment happened at her lowest point.

She’d failed her military entrance exam eight times and her dream of joining the Army felt like it was slipping away. That’s when her DoorDash route took her to Brig. Gen. Richard Harrison’s driveway last summer.

“She approached me, and she says, ‘Oh my God, you're a sign from God,” Harrison recalled. “It kind of struck me like, ‘Why?’ I've got three kids and a wife, and no one's ever called me a sign from God.”

Whether providence or coincidence, the meeting between a prospective entry-level soldier and Army general was propitious. The Army, the largest branch of the U.S. military, has been desperate for recruits, and the 23-year-old from Chesterfield, Virginia, desperately wanted to join its ranks. Two problems: Limbaga couldn’t pass the military academic test, and she didn’t meet height and weight standards. The military needs smart troops to operate sophisticated, expensive weapons, and young people fit to fight.

Limbaga had a lot of company – fewer than 1 in 4 young people qualify academically or physically to join the military. With a booming jobs market even fewer young people consider the military an option. The result: the worst recruiting environment in the 50-year history of the all-volunteer military.

Spending more than $100 million this year for Army fitness schools

That crisis has prompted the Army to spend more than $100 million this year to open schools to bring recruits who fall short of the standards into mental and physical shape.

Harrison, who had been stationed at nearby Fort Eustis at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, told Limbaga about the new program called the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. It tutors young people like Limbaga on the military entrance exam and on how to get physically fit. The pilot program at Fort Jackson in South Carolina expanded in January, and, by June, more than 6,800 recruits had graduated to basic training.

The program is expected to cost around $119 million in fiscal year 2023, including potential expansion to other installations. The cost for 2024 is estmated at $95 million.

The Army needs the recruits the school produces. Last year, the Army fell more than 15,000 recruits short of its target of 60,000 in 2022. Military recruiting troubles generally coincide with low unemployment as young people opt for jobs in the private sector or attend college. In February, unemployment was at its lowest mark in 54 years. It has ticked up to 3.7% but remains historically low.

That spells trouble for the Pentagon, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force on July 1. The unpopular draft ended in 1973 as the U.S. military wound down its presence in Vietnam.

Another factor today: Only about 23% of Americans age 17 to 24 have the academic and physical qualifications to serve.

Struggling to meet recruitment goals

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has told Congress that the Army will struggle to meet its goal of 65,000 recruits this year. She testified that graduates of the preparatory course had performed well in basic training. Their attrition rate is lower than average.

"We brought them up to our standards, and they felt good about it," Harrison said.

But there are caveats. Studies have shown that there’s a correlation between higher test scores on the entrance exam and performing military tasks well, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. think tank and an expert on recruiting. Accepting too many recruits who struggle academically could be problematic.

"It's potentially concerning," Asch said.

For example, researchers found that recruits who scored higher on military aptitude tests were more likely to kill targets with the Patriot anti-aircraft system than those with lower scores, she said. They followed instructions better and used fewer missiles. That's no small matter given the $4 million price tag for a Patriot interceptor.

"You could save a lot of money because now you're using fewer missiles," Asch said.

Raising academic standards in the military, and coaching recruits on nutrition

Realizing it needs smart troops, the Pentagon set benchmarks for recruiting quality in 1993. It wants 90% of recruits to have high school diplomas, for example, and each branch of the military exceeded that benchmark last year. At least 60% of recruits must score above average on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The Army has seen that figure edge closer to the minimum, dropping from 62.9% in 2020 to 60.2% last year. The Pentagon limits to 4% recruits it can accept who score in 10th to 30th percentile of the test, a group referred to as Category IV. Last year, 3.9% of Army recruits belonged in Category IV.

Wormuth told Congress that the Army will not lower its standards, or sacrifice quality for quantity.

Coaching prospective recruits on nutrition and exercise is more likely to have lasting results than the three-week course that helps them improve their test scores, Asch said. The Army will need to track soldiers who graduate from the program and measure their success to determine if the program works as intended, she said.

A good fit

What Harrison saw in Limbaga, he said, was a young woman who wanted to serve her country and wasn't deterred by setbacks. The preparatory course seemed like a good fit for her.

Students increased their test score by an average of 18.5 points and those in the fitness track losing an average of 1.8% body fat each week.

"I really saw the passion in her eyes," he said. "She wanted to be a soldier more than anything. I'm a father and I have two daughters and a son, and I would want someone that's in position to help my kids to do that."

Limbaga's first language is Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines, and she had stumbled on the English comprehension and vocabulary portion of the test, she said. The minimum score to join the Army is 31. After three weeks at Fort Jackson, Limbaga's test score jumped from 18 to 49, she said.

Limbaga's said she viewed the Army as a place to become an independent adult. She and Harrison stayed in touch by text, with the general offering the prospective recruit encouragement.

Losing 25 pounds with the help of a trainer

She wound up needing that encouragement. The three-week course at Fort Jackson helped her pass the academic portion of the test. But when she prepared to enlist, Limbaga fell short of the physical requirement. With the help of a trainer, Limbaga lost 25 pounds.

"When she came back for me to enlist her, she looked totally different with that weight loss," Harrison said. "And she was so excited."

Basic training at Fort Jackson, Limbaga said, didn't worry her because instructors had prepared her for it physically and mentally. Harrison attended Limbaga's graduation 32 years after he completed basic training at the same place.

"My opinion is that she wants to pay it back for the opportunity the Army gave her," he said. "I think she going to be an amazing soldier."

Limbaga's now completing advanced training to be an Army cook at Fort Gregg-Adams in Virginia. She likes the job and took the advice of an instructor to heart. We should cook the way we want to eat, Limbaga said. Because maybe that food will be the last meal a soldier eats.

"It really gave me a lot of motivation to cook well," she said.

More: Just 10 years ago, women were banned from combat. Now, they're on the front lines, climbing the ranks.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Army recruiting crisis: These $200M fit camps get soldiers into shape