Marine moms, dads more likely to drop out of boot camp

Published 12:04 pm Wednesday, July 9, 2008

‘There’s a lot that happens if you’re not physically there that you can’t get back.’

Franklin Smith

Marine from Mississippi

WASHINGTON – Franklin Smith had a wife and an infant son when he convinced a recruiter in Biloxi, Miss., that he wanted to be a Marine.

For the recruiter, bringing in a family man like Smith was a dropout risk – even greater than recruiting someone with a criminal record, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

In these days of long and repeated warfront tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 10 percent of the male recruits who are married with one or more children, or are financially responsible for a dependent, don’t even finish Marine boot camp, according to the Center for Naval Analysis. For women in similar circumstances, the dropout rate jumps to three in 10.

Three-year trends show that recruits who have family responsibilities or did not earn formal high school diplomas are most likely to wash out before they finish initial training. Those recruits also fail more often to complete their first terms of enlistment.

The numbers offer a new slant on recent debates over the Pentagon’s acceptance of recruits who have criminal convictions. They suggest that the long slog of war, the Marines’ frequent seven-month tours fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, also take a toll on recruits with families.

Smith beat those odds. And during a tour in Iraq last November, he re-enlisted for another four years. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

When Smith, now 28, headed to boot camp four years ago, his son Kristian was just a month old.

“It felt a little lonely because you’re not at home,” he said in an interview with AP. “There’s a lot that happens if you’re not physically there that you can’t get back. … When he first started to walk, his first smile. I missed all those things.”

Smith remembers driving by a recruiting office and deciding to stop after he’d had a bad day at work as a substitute teacher. Members of his wife Natasha’s family had been in the military, so she and Franklin knew what they were getting into.

Still, Smith needed a special waiver from the Marines to enter the Corps because he had a family. Marine leaders know that the dropout percentages for such troops are high, but since they represent a fairly small number of recruits overall, commanders often are willing to take the risk.

“I’m not going to argue the statistics, that these folks have a higher attrition rate, but I think we have enough checks and balances,” said Col. Rodman Sansone, the assistant chief of staff for Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “The numbers are small, and we’re comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Under the regulations:

Single parents cannot join the Marines. Recruits who are married with one or more children require a waiver to get in, as do recruits who are unwed parents and pay child support.

Recruits who have three or more dependents – which could be a spouse and two children – cannot join the active duty Marine Corps, but, with a waiver, can join the reserves.

Sansone said the majority of Marines who come in with waivers for dependents are married with one child. The second most common circumstance is unmarried recruits paying child support.

A key concern, he said, is whether the recruits can meet their bills on a military paycheck, and whether they can deal with the frequent deployments to warfronts where family members cannot join them.

For Smith, who plays the trombone and became a member of the Marine Corps Base Quantico Band, preparing his family for his absence was stressful, a top priority when he deployed to Iraq last year. While there he did security details in the volatile Diyala province and guarded convoy operations. He then went to Ramadi in western Iraq before heading home in March.

Despite the hardships, he said his decision to join was a good choice.

“I never thought it was a mistake. … I never looked back,” Smith said. “In order to succeed and go somewhere, you have to make a choice. And you don’t look back at the choice you make, you look ahead and make the best of the choice you made.”

During the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, about 1,400 recruits came in with waivers for dependents, and roughly 1,600 came in with waivers because they did not have high school diplomas. Under Marine Corps regulations only 5 percent of all recruits per year may be admitted with education waivers – which means they either did not finish high school at all or received a GED, an alternative diploma.