When Army Staff Sgt. Clarence Masiwemai greets someone, it's with a large grin and firm handshake. Beneath his smile, his chest and arm are covered in badges and awards that showcase his Army accomplishments, including the Combat Infantryman Badge, Parachutist Badge and the esteemed Ranger tab. At 23, Masiwemai is a decorated combat veteran who's led paratroopers in Iraq. In many ways, he seems like the prototype of a paratrooper on an Army recruiting poster.
But Masiwemai wasn't always so picture-perfect. Before he joined the Army, he had an anger problem; if someone looked at him funny, he was ready to fight. In fact, he had so many brushes with the law because of his brawling that he needed a waiver to be allowed to join.
"If [someone] tried to make a joke and it was in reference to our friends, family or where we came from, we'd respond back with fists," said Masiwemai, the land and ammunition noncommissioned officer for Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, in reference to how he and his friends were. "Now I'm the one making the jokes."
According to Army Recruiting Command statistics, the past three years have seen a 65 percent increase in the number of recruits who needed conduct waivers to join the Army. Today, about one in eight new armed services recruits are let in on these waivers. Media outlets have reported on this with a tone of concern for the quality of today's soldiers.
But Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, stresses that waivers don't mean the military relaxes its standards, and that each waiver decision is based on "solid judgment calls."
"Last year's [waivered enlistees] proved to perform; they retained as well as the non-waivered counterparts, and they wouldn't be retaining if they weren't performing," he told online journalists and bloggers in an April 25 conference call. "They are doing as well as the non-waiver crowd. Therefore, we are making correct bets on the risks that we take for someone that has done something that was that much of an aberration against what we expect of our teenagers."
In fact, a study by the Army's Human Resource Center showed that soldiers who enter the Army on a conduct waiver are more likely to re-enlist, are promoted quicker than their peers, and even win more awards and badges.
Like Masiwemai, Sgt. John Adkerson, a squad leader from the 82nd Airborne Division's Company A, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, was allowed to join the Army on a conduct waiver.
"Really, I joined because I wanted to -- I needed to -- keep myself out of trouble," said Adkerson, an Alpharetta, Ga., native.
Adkerson has done more than that. He's in charge of seven soldiers, has led paratroopers in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and received a Purple Heart after being wounded by shrapnel from a mortar.
"He leads from the front," Army 1st Lt. Travis Pride, Adkerson's former platoon leader, said. "He's a good role model."
Adkerson will give advice to his soldiers even if they don't know they need it, Pride explained.
When he was a private first class, Adkerson passed Ranger School, an intense combat leadership course, paving the way for a speedy promotion to sergeant in a little over two years. The average soldier takes 4.2 years. Masiwemai -- "Masi" for short -- also took two years to be promoted to sergeant; it took him five and a half to make staff sergeant.
Masiwemai, an Island of Yap, Micronesia, native, said that as soon as he finished basic training, he started to notice a change in himself as well as a few of his comrades who also came in on conduct waivers.
"Right when they finished basic training was when they realized, 'Hey, this is helping me out. I'm changing. I'm becoming a better person than I once was,'" Masiwemai explained. He said he believes soldiers who required a waiver to enlist end up doing well because they strive to improve themselves.
"They try harder to stay in the military by having an outstanding performance, by learning their job and knowing that the military is a great place to change yourself," he explained.
Adkerson said he believes that granting waivers to Army hopefuls with a questionable past helps get them off the streets and out of trouble.
"Waivers are the right thing to do," Adkerson said. "Instead of keeping people out of the Army, it's going to help the kids and make them a better person to society. ... People say you join a gang to get a family. The Army's a tighter family than you'd ever have."
Author Army Sgt. Susan Wilt serves in the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.