For two years, Jason Childress has had a bag packed for basic training.
The 42-year-old North Carolinian has waited for the call for almost two years, but the phone hasn't rung.
His passion to become a combat medic was spurred a few years ago when he watched his father die.
"That feeling that you get when you lose someone, that's something I felt I could prevent for someone else," Childress said. "Maybe, if I had done this earlier, I could have helped him more that day."
While normally army recruits are between 17 and 35 years old, age waivers can be granted to individuals who are able to begin basic training before their 42nd birthday.
Childress said he got in contact with a North Carolina recruiting office two months after his 41st birthday.
He said he was told that his age wasn't a problem and that he passed all the tests.
"Everything cleared. The only thing I didn't get was my age waiver," he said.
As the months ticked by and his 42nd birthday loomed, he still didn't get assigned a date for basic training. And then he was told, it was too late.
"I followed the guidelines. I followed the rules. I follow the regulations. I went through all the different channels it was it was my right as a U.S. citizen," he said.
A spokesperson for the Raleigh Army Recruiting Battalion told the I-Team, "Mr. Childress has been made aware from many different levels on why he was not able to enlist," but declined to comment further on his case.
The statement continued to state, "Recruiting high-quality personnel for America's Army is and always will be our focus. We are not lowering our standards but creating opportunities for those with a desire to serve to meet enlistment requirements."
Despite now being seven months past his 42nd birthday, Childress hasn't given up the fight. He's stayed in shape and reached out to Congress; determined to get his chance.
"I can't give up I'm just I'm not built that way and that's what our country needs in the military right now," he said.
His frustration is elevated because his denial comes at a time when almost every branch of the military is falling short of its recruiting goals.
"Why am I being ignored if we're in such a crisis for recruits, and no one's answering the call? Why are you closing the door on someone that's begging to join?" Childress questioned.
Last year, the U.S. Army fell short of its 60,000 recruitment goal by 15,000 soldiers.
"It's a concern. But I think that we're at a place right now in our country, and what our country is asking us to do is that it's not a point of crisis yet, but the potential is there," said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Newdigate, with the U.S. Army's Raleigh Recruiting Battalion.
ABC News reported only 9% of young people have an interest in serving in the military and a decreasing number of individuals are even educationally and medically qualified.
Just 23% of 17 to 24-year-olds are eligible to serve, a percentage that has dropped in recent years, according to data from the Pentagon.
The Domino Effect of fewer recruits and more vacancies means more work for current soldiers and could also mean longer deployments and some jobs just not getting done.
The Raleigh Recruiting Battalion has fallen short of its recruiting goals for the past two years. In 2022, the battalion recruited 66% of the desired 3,689 recruits.
The local battalion has some of the highest recruiting goals nationwide.
Newdigate said the pandemic definitely impacted the Army's efforts as personal engagement opportunities, especially in schools, are one of their main tools to reach potential recruits.
"The more long term, they have more lasting effects. It takes longer for us to reestablish those relationships, reestablish that communication, and reestablish that the knowledge base of the opportunities for service in the country," he explained.
He explained those personal connections soldiers establish in the community allow them to dispel many of the misconceptions people have that prevent them from enlisting.
And getting people interested in signing up is just the first step. From there, the pool of applicants shrinks.
"It whittles down even further when you start looking at whether they are educationally qualified?" Newdigate said. "If they can, great. Then the next gate is are they medically qualified?"
The Raleigh Recruiting Battalion sent 7,200 people to take the education test last year; only 56% of applicants passed. Around 3,800 people were screened medically but only 74% or 2,800 were medically cleared in 2022.
The percentage of applicants getting cleared medically has dropped from 81% in 2020 to 74% in 2022 for the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion.
"The vast majority of our population in America is not qualified for military service. That's the reality," Newdigate said.
He said increasing mental health challenges and vaping among America's youth has shrunk the pool of medically qualified applicants further.
The other factor the Army is battling is an increasingly competitive job market, especially in North Carolina.
"It's challenging because North Carolina is the number one state in the country, they say for business. So businesses are coming here. So our competitors are competing for the same high-quality talent pool," he explained.
Despite the challenges over the last few years, Newdigate said he is optimistic. His battalion is still slightly below its goal of where it needs to be but believes they are on pace to do better than it did last year.
"As we come out of that pandemic, it's going to be an upward trend. As things improve, and the job market improves, the economy improves, I think it's going to be a good year for us," He said.
The overall Army is sharing in that optimism. Despite recent recruitment challenges, it increased its recruitment goal this year to 65,000.
As for Childress, he's still waiting for his chance to be one of those recruits.
"I can leave right now. I don't need anything other than opportunity. And I don't think that's too much to ask," he said.
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