Military Attrition:

DOD Needs to Follow Through on Actions Initiated to Reduce Early Separations

T-NSIAD-99-80: Published: Feb 24, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 1999.

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Mark E. Gebicke
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed recruiting and attrition in the military services, focusing on: (1) recruiter selection and incentive systems and their effects on recruiter performance; (2) the screening of incoming recruits for criminal history information to ensure that only qualified persons are allowed to enlist; (3) reasons for attrition during the first 6 months of an enlistee's term; and (4) reasons for premature attrition after first-term enlistees have completed 6 months of service.

GAO noted that: (1) for at least the last decade, about one-third of all Department of Defense (DOD) enlistees have failed to complete their initial terms of service; (2) this attrition rate represents a costly problem; (3) GAO calculates that the services spent $1.3 billion to recruit and train 72,670 enlistees who entered the services in fiscal year 1993 but were separated before the end of their first term; (4) clearly, the services did not receive a full return on their investment; (5) GAO's work since 1995 has shown that to decrease this attrition rate, the services needed to: (a) revise their recruiter selection and award systems to create more incentives to recruit enlistees who are likely to complete basic training; (b) improve the medical, physical, and criminal screening of incoming recruits to ensure that only those fully qualified are enlisted; and (c) gather more comprehensive data on why enlistees are being separated early to allow DOD and the services to craft effective retention policies; (6) in response to GAO's recommendations, DOD and the services have already initiated many actions to reduce attrition; (7) the services are beginning to tie recruiter awards more closely to recruits' successful completion of basic training and to use better tools to select new recruiters; (8) to improve the screening of applicants for service, DOD has revised its medical history forms, and the services have worked toward making their pre-entry physical fitness programs more rigorous; (9) DOD has also agreed to strengthen criminal background screening by requiring full fingerprint checks and other technological improvements; (10) however, for all of these actions to result in a reduction of enlisted attrition, DOD and the services must vigilantly follow through on these actions and assess their effects; (11) one of DOD's major efforts will take a long time to complete, the creation of a database on reasons for premature separations; (12) DOD has made good progress toward creating databases on medical separations and on enlistment waivers; (13) also, DOD has just completed phase one of its effort to improve separation codes; (14) DOD's next step is to standardize the application of these codes among all the DOD agencies that use them; and (15) creating accurate data on why enlistees are leaving before the end of their first terms will enable the services to craft successful policies to retain enlistees and allow DOD to set reasonable goals for reducing attrition.

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