So the Army is accepting a growing number of new recruits with everythging from health and weight issues to lower academic test scores to criminal records.
The number of incoming soldiers with prior felony arrests or convictions has more than tripled in the past five years. This year alone, the Army accepted an estimated 8,000 recruits with rap sheets, reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier.
Most are guilty of misdemeanors, but around 100 in the past year had felony convictions.
"Burglaries and narcotics are probably our two top categories," according to Col. Sheila Hickman.
In the Dallas recruiting office, Staff Sgt. Anthony Garcia says he enlists only those who are ready to leave that past behind.
"DUI, drug paraphernalia charges, more than three curfew violations," Garcia says. "It could be anything minor or some stuff major."
No violent crimes, but for "major stuff" like breaking and entering or arson, the military grants what's called a "moral waiver."
It's an old formula judges used to pronounce: Join the Army or go to jail.
But today, recruits are going from boot camp to a hot war in Iraq. Some former Pentagon officials call it a recipe for chaos.
"In order for the Army to meet its quota, which is going up … they have to resort to giving, taking more and more chances on people," says Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.
Some chances work out. Cpl. Angelo Vaccaro was granted a waiver. He was awarded two Silver Stars after he was killed rescuing wounded soldiers.
But then there's former Army Pvt. Steve Green, also awarded a waiver, who is on trial for raping and murdering an Iraqi girl, then killing her entire family.
"The stakes are very high," Korb says. "You're going to give these people lethal weapons… so you better be damn sure that this man or woman has the self-discipline and the strength to be able to use that weapon only when he or she must."
Yet across the services, commanders are not told when someone has a record. The idea: With no stigma, the recruit has an equal chance to succeed.
"We've always been an Army that's been known to give patriotic citizens second and third chances," Hickman says.
They are risking their lives for those second chances, but officials also admit the people they really want are being driven away.