YORK, Pa. The numbers are staggering: Seventy-one percent of young people are ineligible to join the military, according to 2017 Pentagon data. The reasons: obesity, no high school diploma, or a criminal record.
The problem isn't just a military one, though: It's an issue for businesses as well because the vast majority of that age group isn't eligible for many jobs either, said retired Rear Admiral Thomas Wilson.
That's why Wilson recently raised the issue at a gathering of business and community leaders in Pennsylvania's York County. The 29 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds who are qualified become prime targets for all recruiting: military, college and jobs.
Wilson, a former Naval officer in Pennsylvania, calls it a war for the qualified. Steve Doster, Pennsylvania State director of Military Readiness for Council for a Strong America, agrees it's a problem.
This is a very real risk to our national security, Doster said.
The solution could start in childhood
Brian Grimm has been fighting to improve the numbers for many years as executive director of the York Day Nursery.
"He was preaching to the choir with me," said Grimm, who heard Wilson speak at a recent York County Economic Alliance breakfast. "It's like you want to stand up and say: Is everybody listening?"
Early childhood education is Wilson's focus. He volunteers with Doster's organization, Council for a Strong America, joining hundreds of other retired military who serve in the organization from across the country, along with law enforcement leaders, ministers, and even athletes.
They're promoting a common message: Young people need preparation early in their lives to be productive members of society later.