In 2010, the U.S. Army met a Congressional order to increase their strength to 570,000 troops. The army did this ahead of schedule, despite having told the politicians that the additional troops would not be needed by the time (several years later) they were recruited and trained. Then, when the politicians realized that the war in Iraq had unexpectedly been won (because politicians were listening to the media rather than the troops), they ordered a sharp cut in the new army strength. Army personnel strength must now be cut 14 percent over the next five years.
Making these cuts has proved more difficult than anticipated. That's because the continued recession in the United States, and an unemployment rate stuck at more than eight percent, means more soldiers are trying to stay in the army. Troops were also aware of the fact that the unemployment for civilians in their age bracket is about 18 percent, while it is 29 percent for recently discharged soldiers. Many troops choose to use their GI Bill benefits and go to college or trade school, but many more would prefer to stay in the army a few more years.
In response to the Congressional order to sharply reduce strength, the army has greatly reduced recruiting efforts and is making it more difficult to reenlist. A lot of soldiers, who would have been allowed to reenlist over the last two decades, will not make the cut over the next few years.
Meanwhile it's getting much more difficult to join the army. Not only is a high school diploma required but you need good grades. High schools known for low standards and graduating students just for appearances sake, not because the grad was qualified, are avoided. A graduate from one of those schools can still get in if they do very well on the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test, a general aptitude exam tweaked to emphasize mental skills most useful in the military) and an interview.
There are no more waivers. This was a practice that has been declining over the last four years. Waivers allow otherwise qualified (physically and mentally) applicants to enlist, despite having a police record. These are called "moral waivers”. In 2003, 4.6 percent of all recruits benefited from this. In 2006, it was 7.9 percent. Some journalists believed this would lead to an increase in criminal activity on army bases, especially involving young guys who were in gangs before they joined the military. That made a great headline but the crime wave from "waivered" recruits never materialized. Troops enlisted via waivers tend to have a more difficult time completing the training, or have discipline and self-control problems later on. As a result of that, there are no more waivers.
The maximum age for joining is back to 35 (it was 42 for a few years), but the prospect of a half-pay pension after twenty years has an appeal, as does the fact that the armed forces is highly respected these days. Not just because of all the fighting in the last decade but because of the high recruiting standards. The ancient cliché that “only losers join” is long dead now. The military is now a club that many want to join but only few are good enough to get in.
Recruiting standards have also soared in the other services, particularly the air force, which has always been picky. The marines have gone from seeking a “few good men” to demanding a “few even better men" (and women).