The military has lowered standards and handed out more waivers to offenders, who may go on to break the law on duty.
Before Army Sgt. First Class Randal Ruby was accused in Iraq of beating prisoners and of conspiring to plant rifles on dead civilians, he amassed a 10-year criminal record documenting assaults on his wife in Colorado and Washington state and a drunken high-speed police chase in Maine for which he remains wanted.
Before Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes stabbed an Iraqi private to death with a bayonet, he was hospitalized after threatening suicide in high school, accused of assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing, and, in the months leading up to deployment, was twice linked to drug use.
Before Army Spc. Shane Carl Gonyon was convicted of stealing a pistol at Abu Ghraib prison, he was convicted twice on felony charges and arrested four times, once for allegedly giving a 13-year-old girl marijuana in exchange for oral sex. He enlisted weeks after his release from prison in Oregon.
During a yearlong examination, the Sacramento Bee studied the backgrounds of hundreds of troops identified from recruiting documents and other military records, focusing on those who entered the services since the Iraq war began and those linked to in-service problems.
That's only a fraction of the 1.4 million people in uniform -- about 145,000 of them serving in Iraq -- and the examination was conducted largely without benefit of sophisticated criminal databases available to the military.
Still, the study was able to link dozens of soldiers with criminal records and other questionable backgrounds to misconduct in the military.
"Criminal history is the best predictor of future behavior," said Shawn Bushway, a criminology professor at the University of Albany, N.Y., School of Criminal Justice. "Any time you lower your standards, you're going to raise the risk. No question about it."
The 250 military personnel analyzed most closely included 120 with questionable backgrounds, including felonies and serious drug, alcohol or mental health problems. Of those 120, 70 have been linked to incidents in the military, mostly occurring in Iraq. At least 18 had felony arrests or convictions or histories of mental illness. At least eight of the 18 later were connected to incidents in Iraq, and a ninth fatally shot himself while on guard duty in Kuwait.
"These guys are out there carrying weapons, fighting on the streets with drugs in their pockets," said Tressie Cox, whose son, Lee Robert, had a history of drug and mental problems before he was charged with selling drugs in Iraq. "Shame on my son, but shame on all you people out there who are policing this and allowing this to continue to happen."
The soldiers identified here were retained as the armed services -- entering the sixth year of the Iraq war -- lowered educational, age and moral standards and granted a growing number of waivers to applicants whose backgrounds would otherwise have barred them from serving.
The percentage of Army recruits receiving so-called "moral conduct" waivers more than doubled, from 4.6 percent in 2003 to 11.2 percent in 2007. Others were able to enlist because they had no official record of arrests or convictions, their records were overlooked or prosecutors suspended charges in lieu of military service.
"How in the hell can they legally possess a gun?" asked Montgomery County, Ala., Sheriff D.T. Marshall, when questioned about a soldier from his county, Eli C. Gregory, who was convicted in an attempted home invasion and of felony theft, making him ineligible to legally possess a firearm. Yet the military gave him a rifle and sent him to Iraq, where he was convicted by the Army of assault and battery on a fellow soldier and discharged.
The military defended its policies.
"Standards in our society have changed over the years; we are a reflection of those changes," said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command. "Considering offering a waiver to otherwise qualified recruits is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call to duty."
Earlier this month, the Defense Department announced a system to categorize waivers by the severity of prior offenses to allow the services to analyze the link between waivers and military behavior.
In December, the National Guard quit granting felony waivers. Its chief recruiting officer, Col. Mike Jones, told the Army Times the previous policy was "a risk," but he later told the Bee an increased number of applicants made the policy no longer necessary.