WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2010— -- Young Americans looking to join the armed forces may have to wait to serve.
The combination of lower recruitment target numbers, a weak economy and the implementation of the GI bill has made waiting lists, officially known as the Delayed Entry Pool, longer than they have been in recent years.
The Marine Corps, which has traditionally had a smaller recruiting base, has fulfilled more than 65 percent of its target for fiscal year 2011. The Army entered the new recruiting year in October having fulfilled 50 percent, or half its targeting goals for next year.
The number is a near record for the Army. The last time in recent decades the waiting list was so long was 1996, when the Delayed Entry Pool was at 42.9 percent at the start of the fiscal year.
In recent years, the Army lowered standards to boost recruitment, including allowing those with low test scores and even criminal records to join. But after years of such incentives and hefty bonuses, recruitment interest has not only surged but the quality of Americans who have expressed interest has improved considerably.
For the first time since fiscal year 1992, nearly all of the Army recruits -- 99.9 percent -- in fiscal year 2010 were high school graduates.
"It's a great time for us. We're very pleased with the way things are going. The characteristics of the people we're recruiting are near all time highs," Maj. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army recruitment command at Ft. Knox, Ky., told ABC News.
The higher number of high school graduates "was a good sign and we have been able to restrict the number of waivers we give for conduct, so that's been an improvement as well," he said.
A number of factors are behind the surging numbers. The military has cut back recruitment goals across the board. The Army target, for example, for the fiscal year 2011 is 67,000, lower than 74,500 in 2010 and well below the average recruitment goal of 80,000 between 2005 and 2008.
The economy also plays a crucial part. Unemployment remains relatively high at 9.8 percent, the same level as last year, and among 18-to-24-year-olds -- the Pentagon's prime recruiting age -- it's even higher.
Officials admit that unemployment has led more volunteers to visit recruitment centers, but caution that it's only part of the equation.
U.S. Military Recruitment Surges
"Our economy has something to do with this, but not everything," Col. David Lapan, deputy assistance secretary of defense for media operations, said at a briefing in October. "A lot of people would think that, as we look at where we are right now in terms of the challenges facing us, it's more to it than the economy."
The post-9/11 GI Bill has also created a new incentive for young men and women to join the armed forces. Passed last year, the bill pays for education and housing for family and service members who have served at least 90 days and were honorably discharged.
"The post-9/11 GI Bill has made a big difference in United States Army recruiting, as I look and talk to our noncommissioned officers and our officers who are out providing the strength for the Army every day," said Maj. Gen. Donald M. Campbell, Jr., commanding general of the U.S. Army recruiting command.
With more Americans eager to sign up to serve, what new recruits shouldn't expect to see are the hefty bonuses that their predecessors were promised as an added incentive. In fiscal year 2010, average bonuses dropped to $5,900 for those with no prior military service, considerably lower than $13,300 in 2009 and $18,300 in 2008.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also slashed about $500 million out of the recruiting and reenlistment bonuses.
Fiscal year 2009 was the first time since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973 that all the services met their goals for both numbers and quality of recruits in the 12 months ending Sept. 30.
Waiting lists for recruits are not a new phenomenon, but how long the list and the wait is has varied over the years.
Delayed Entry Pools usually depend on the availability of the recruit or the availability of a training slot. The size of the military services is set in stone, so they can't bring in more people than they're authorized, so in many cases, recruits have to wait for the slots to open up.
ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.