Hawaii is home to one of the largest and most powerful military complexes in the world yet fails to produce a large cadre of local kids who are qualified to enter its ranks, according to experts who say declining military eligibility across the country is posing a threat to national security.

A report by Mission: Readiness, a national security organization aimed at better preparing kids for military careers, shows that more than a third — 38 percent — of local high schoolers who took the military entrance exam in 2010 failed, placing Hawaii in last place along with Mississippi. Nationally, about 23 percent of all military prospects that year failed the exam, which tests students on subjects such as math and reading.

But other, non-academic factors further hamper military eligibility here, too, including obesity and criminal records, according to those familiar with recruitment efforts in Hawaii.

“We want this part of the American dream to stay open to anyone who wishes, but right now it’s stayed closed,” said Mission: Readiness Director Amy Dawson Taggart. “For states (like Hawaii) that have a proud military tradition this really hits us in the heart.”

In 2010, there were roughly 47,000 military employees in Hawaii, according to census data. The state is home to the United States Pacific Command, whose responsibility covers half the globe and oversees four commands, including the U.S. Army Pacific and U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Dawson Taggart says trends in Hawaii reflect a growing national problem that stems from poor academic preparation and limited state investment in child health and development.

Three-fourths of all young people across the country aren’t qualified for the military today, either because they perform poorly on the exam, aren’t physically fit or don’t have a high school diploma, Dawson Taggart said.

Hawaii-specific statistics are not readily available, though experts say the number of local students who qualify is much lower than the national average, primarily because of inadequate education and fitness.

Stephen Goering, who works as an education services specialist for the U.S. Army’s Honolulu recruitment branch and works with the state’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, stressed that military ineligibility is on the rise both because federal defense spending is being cut and because commands across the board are drawing down forces in the Middle East. That, Goering said, has heightened competition for active force positions, marking a shift from recent years when many military branches enlisted students who might have been otherwise disqualified to fulfill wartime needs.

The Army, for example, issued roughly 10,000 waivers in 2008, excusing candidates who would normally be disqualified for things like criminal convictions and certain tattoos, according to Goering. Last year, the Army, which recruits roughly 100 Hawaii kids each year, issued just 500 waivers, mostly to prospects who had critical skill sets such as proficiency in a foreign language.

But Hawaii’s schools are by and large failing students, Dawson Taggart said, pointing to failing entrance exam scores and poor fitness. Achieving a minimum score is necessary to qualify for the military.

For the hundreds of Hawaii candidates who don’t have those basic qualifications, “our recruiters end up having to kick them out of (recruiting stations),” Goering said.

That can be especially discouraging for students from working-class families considering that the military is often the most practical route for students with limited means, according to Patrick Bratton, chair of the Diplomacy and Military Studies program at Hawaii Pacific University.

Goering suggested boosting public school vocational opportunities such as the Hawaii Department of Education’s Career and Technical education program in order to enhance military eligibility in the state. The program, he said, equips kids with the skills they need to be successful in a range of careers, including those in the military.

Meantime, both Bratton and Dawson Taggart also stressed that physical fitness among children is a major challenge here despite notions that Hawaii is one of the healthiest states.

High asthma rates, a problem Goering attributed to vog, are another one of the most common disqualifying physical traits among Hawaii high schoolers. In 2008, 15 percent of young adults in Hawaii aged 18 through 24 had asthma, compared with the national average of 10 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Goering also noted that tattoos, perhaps more common — or visible — in Hawaii than most states, often take a toll on military eligibility, particularly when they’re above the neckline or involve suggestive images such as gang affiliation.

Still, Brittan said military recruitment challenges also stem from the limited role that the military plays in most locals’ lives — a “paradox” that he said is reflected in the small number of kamaaina who attempt to enlist in the military.

“A lot of people, unless you’re in a job where you interface with the military, kind of go day in and day out in thinking about the military,” he said, noting that much of the military industry here is occupied by a “transient community” in which families leave after just a few years.

In the 2010 fiscal year, Hawaii ranked 14th in the country for the number of students recruited for the military, according to a study by the National Priorities Project.

All in all, some critics say military eligibility shouldn’t serve as a proxy for assessing whether Hawaii’s high schoolers will be successful in life.

Pete Doktor, a Farrington High School teacher who previously served in the military and helps oversee the school’s Peace & Justice Club, said statistics such as those contained in the Mission: Readiness report are part of a strategic effort to recruit working-class kids for what is ultimately an undesirable profession.

“This isn’t really about helping out kids, but helping out the military.”

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