WASHINGTON - The U.S. Army, stung by recruiting shortfalls caused by the Iraq war, has raised the maximum age for new recruits for the part-time Army Reserve and National Guard by five years to 39, officials said on Monday.
The Army said the move, a three-year experiment, will add about 22 million people to the pool of those eligible to serve, from about 60 million now. Physical standards will not be relaxed for older recruits, who the Army said were valued for their maturity and patriotism.
The Pentagon has relied heavily on part-time Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers summoned from civilian life to maintain troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 45 percent of U.S. troops currently deployed for those wars are reservists.
At home, the all-volunteer Army has labored to coax potential recruits to volunteer for the Guard and Reserve as well as for active-duty, and to persuade current soldiers to re-enlist when their volunteer commitment ends.
Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, an Army spokeswoman, said the maximum enlistment age for the regular Army will remain 34. While congressional action was not needed to raise the age for the Guard and Reserve, Robbins said, Congress must approve any change for the active-duty force.
"Raising the maximum age for non-prior service enlistment expands the recruiting pool, provides motivated individuals an opportunity to serve, and strengthens the readiness of Reserve units," the Army said in a statement.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said it was possible after the three-year test ends in September 2008 that the Pentagon may consider an enlistment age for Army reservists even older than 39.
Recruiters say the Iraq war is making military service a harder sell, and the Army has added recruiters and financial incentives for enlistment.
The Army National Guard missed its recruiting goal for the 2004 fiscal year and trails its year-to-date 2005 targets. The Army Reserve missed January and February goals and is lagging its target for 2005. The regular Army missed its target for February and trails its annual goal.
"Obviously, this decision is being made partly in response to the personnel shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
But he said U.S. life expectancy increased by 40 percent in the 20th century, adding, "The pressure of wartime has pushed the Army to make a change that may have been overdue anyway."
"Anecdotally, our recruiters have been telling us for years that we've had people who are otherwise qualified but over the age limit who have attempted to enlist," Robbins said. "There are physically fit, health-conscious individuals who can make a positive contribution to our national defense."
The Army said the policy applies to men and women, and older recruits must meet the same physical standards and pass the same medical examination as everyone else.
"Experience has shown that older recruits who can meet the physical demands of military service generally make excellent soldiers based on their maturity, motivation, loyalty and patriotism," the Army said.
Krenke said the change was first considered last fall and approved by the Pentagon last week. She said the Marines, Navy and Air Force had not requested a similar change.
The Army Reserve is made up of federal soldiers who can be mobilized from civilian life for active duty. National Guard soldiers also serve under the control of state governors for roles like disaster relief in their home states.