WASHINGTON - Last August, Daysia Holiday decided to try one more time to join the Army.
She’d taken the academic test and failed three times. So, when she was offered a slot in a new Army prep course to help improve her scores and qualify for basic training, she jumped at the chance.
Seven months later, Pvt. 2nd Class Holiday is a proud graduate of Army basic training, and is finishing her advanced instruction at Fort Lee, Virginia, to become a power generation specialist who will maintain engines and other equipment for the service.
Holiday is an early beneficiary of the new program, which gives lower-performing recruits up to 90 days of academic or fitness instruction to help them meet military standards. In place for only eight months, it is already making a significant difference for both the Army and those who want to serve in it.
So far, 5,400 soldiers have made it through the prep course since it started in August at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. That’s an important boost since the Army fell dramatically short of its recruiting goals last year, due to low unemployment and general wariness about military service. And at least one other military service, the Navy, took notice and is setting up a similar course.
For those who make it through the program, it can be life-changing. Holiday, 23, said many of her peers in her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, didn’t make it out of high school, with some "dead or in jail." Sitting outside the class building in her Army fatigues last summer, she talked about trying to pass the academic test for two years with no success.
She said she wanted to set an example, especially for her younger siblings. The prep course gave her a second chance. She raised her academic score by more than 20 points.
The course, she said, was like "basic training without the yelling." It also allowed her to bond with fellow students. "We helped each other out throughout basic training, so it was easy," she said. "All of us actually passed, so it was a good experience. And we all keep in touch."
Army leaders say the program — it involves classroom instruction and training ranging from how to wear the uniform and properly make a bed to fitness and discipline — gives recruits like Holiday an advantage.
"I think an interesting thing we’ve seen is that the kids coming out of that course, who go into basic, actually seem to have a little bit of a leg up," said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
"During basic training, certain young individuals who show a little bit more leadership skills than others get selected to have leadership positions. And what we’re seeing is the kids coming out of the prep course are often the ones who are being chosen for that."
As of March 17, nearly 8,400 people had been admitted to the prep course and more than 5,400 had graduated and gone on to basic training. Army Lt. Col. Randy Ready, spokesman for the Army Center for Initial Military Training, said about 6% of those recruits don’t make it through basic and advanced individual training, about the same attrition rate as for those who don’t go through the prep course.
Ready said almost 4,000 of the graduates were in the academic track and about 1,400 were in the fitness track. Students in the academic program increased their test scores by an average of 19 points, he said.
"It has been largely very, very successful," said Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, head of Army Recruiting Command, adding that students who go through the prep course come out more prepared. "It instills a level of positively and confidence in those future soldiers."
Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff, told a House committee on Tuesday that students in the program are improving their academic scores and losing 4% to 6% of their body fat.
"We’re really giving them discipline," he said. "They’re getting in shape. We’re giving them a head start. So when going into initial military training, where they were at the lowest category, they’re actually excelling and in some ways exceeding the standards — becoming the student leaders."
Once in the program, recruits are tested every week. And every three weeks they can move into basic training if they pass the military’s academic test — the Armed Services Voluntary Aptitude Battery — or if they meet the physical standards.
If they don't pass or meet the standards after the first three weeks, they can stay on and keep testing for up to 90 days, but they have to leave the Army if they haven't succeeded by then.
Army leaders initially thought they might open as many as four locations for the prep course, but they haven't seen the need. Instead, they doubled the capacity at Fort Jackson and created a smaller, similar program at Fort Benning, Georgia, which gives young soldiers a chance to raise their academic scores if they want to qualify for higher-skilled jobs or bonuses.
The program got the Navy's attention. Late last November, Navy Capt. Frank Brown and several others visited Fort Jackson, and as a result will open a new sailor fitness prep course next month. Brown said recruits who are 6% above the body composition requirements will take a three-week fitness course, and can repeat it for up to 90 days to meet the standards and go on to boot camp.
Brown, the director of operations for training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, said 60 to 80 recruits will start the course on April 10. He said the Navy is also planning a pilot program for an academic course, likely this summer, to allow lower-scoring recruits to improve so they can qualify for higher-skilled jobs.
Air Force officials said they haven't ruled out doing a prep program, but are currently using other ways to boost recruiting.
"We are focusing our efforts on eliminating unnecessary or outdated policy barriers to recruiting, adapting our outreach strategy, and adjusting our recruiting approach" to better reach potential recruits, said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service.
As for Holiday, when she graduates Wednesday she will head to her first post, in Fort Carson, Colorado. "I’m very much glad that I did it," she said. "It’s been a good journey for me."
And she's got bigger ambitions.
"I still want to try to do the Green Beret (course)," she said. "And, I want to do other courses — airborne and stuff like that. And I want to also try to become an officer as well."