Fort Jackson, S.C. — Austin Swarner left high school to care for his mother while she fought a losing battle with cancer. Tony Brown wanted to begin supporting himself and left two classes shy of a diploma. Haelee Holden got tired of trying to make it through school while flipping burgers until 1 a.m.
But the U.S. Army, eager to fill its ranks amid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn't see them as dropouts. They are recruits who only need a GED before they're ready to begin basic training.
And so, the Army formally opened its first prep school Wednesday.
"It's academic immersion," explained Col. Jeffrey Sanderson, chief of staff at Fort Jackson, home of the Army's largest basic training school. "Our studies show that with only three out of every 10 people of military age being capable of joining the Army, we are going to have to do something different."
That includes turning six World War II-era buildings at the base into a mini-campus. Under the yearlong pilot project, classes of about 60 soldiers will enter the monthlong program every week.
Grouped three to four to a class, the students hunch over special GED preparation books, working on basic math, social studies and reading selections.
Recruits must score in the top half of the Army's aptitude test to qualify for the prep school and get two tries at a General Educational Development certificate.
If they still can't pass, the Army will release them from their contract, Sanderson said.
Last October, Army officials said they intended to expand the force by adding 74,000 soldiers by 2010, with the active duty force growing to a total of 547,000.
A study issued by the National Priorities Project released in January found that while the Army has a goal that 90 percent of recruits be high school graduates, it hadn't met that percentage since 2004.