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Ventura County Star

Frank Maciel has always dreamed of going to college and joining the Air Force as a ranked officer.

He joined the Air Force Junior ROTC on campus. Now a senior at Oxnard High School, the tall 18-year-old is known by many of his peers as Cadet Maj. Frank Maciel.

"It's helped me prepare, because honestly, I wouldn't be where I am without this program," Maciel said. "It's taught me to be a better student and a better leader in the classroom. I know the values I've learned in this program will help me out for the rest of my life."

Maciel is among thousands of young adults across the nation wanting to pursue careers in the military. Unlike Maciel, however, many cannot reach their goals because they simply are not qualified, according to a new report.

Statistics released by the Pentagon show about 75 percent of young adults ages 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the military mainly because they have not graduated from high school, have a criminal record, or are overweight and cannot perform physical tasks.

A report recently released by Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization led by retired military leaders, calls on the nation to address the challenges that make young people unqualified for military service.

In California alone, about 3 million young adults are not qualified to enlist, according to the report.

"The retired generals and admirals are very concerned that this bodes poorly for our national security in the long term," said Amy Dawson Taggart, national director of Mission: Readiness. "Many of youth 17 to 24 struggle with one or more factors that disqualify them. Not only is this a national security problem, it is also a problem for the business sector, universities and the community."

According to the report, about 30 percent of potential recruits who have graduated from high school still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a math and language arts written test.

One in 10 young adults cannot join the military because they have at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor, the report said.

About 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join, Taggart said.

"The obesity rate is skyrocketing, and it is a serious problem," Taggart said. "With the decline in private sector jobs now, there are more people who would love to join but don't have that opportunity right now. It's a combination that they just don't qualify and there are only a few slots available."

Programs like Junior ROTC in high schools and ROTC programs through military recruiting offices help young people get the tools they need to qualify for the military.

In Sgt. Stephen Emmons' Junior ROTC Air Force class at Oxnard High, more than half of the students say they plan to join the military. Getting students prepared is part of the overall goal, Emmons said.

"The whole point of the class is to teach them leadership and help them look at things beyond a narrow reach," Emmons said. "At this age, they think the universe ends 2 feet from their nose."

While the Junior ROTC curriculum covers many life skills and promotes the value of teamwork, physical activity is also a key component. Every week, students are expected to perform physical training like running or exercise drills. Maciel oversees many of those physical and uniformed drills at Oxnard High.

Oxnard High sophomore Marissa Lurin said Junior ROTC has helped boost her confidence and physical abilities.

"This has actually helped me with my asthma because it has helped me build my breathing," said Lurin, who is thinking of enlisting in the Marine Corps. "I'm also really shy to get up in class and this has helped me become more confident. It's also taught me to respect my peers, because some of the high-ranking students are younger than me. I have to listen to them and that helps a lot."

According to the Mission: Readiness report, barriers need to be addressed before students reach high school. The organization, for example, supports efforts to prevent teens from dropping out of school. Such teens sometimes turn to crime.

"We looked at the research and determined that high-quality early education, such as pre-K programs and Head Start, are some of the most effective ways to get kids off to a right start in life," Taggart said. "Most recently, we are calling for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would put $1 billion per year for early childhood education in states across the country."

Maciel said without the guidance of programs like Junior ROTC and a good education before high school, many young recruits would be unfit to serve.

"I feel really bad because a lot of people do care about this country and do want to serve this country," Maciel said. "It's what they were born for what they want to fight for."