In 2005, when the US Army Recruiting Command missed recruitment numbers by the largest margin since 1979, the army took in 21,880 new soldiers - 17 per cent of recruits - on a waiver. That's more than an entire infantry division.
The situation had become so bad by 2007 that nearly one in five recruits entered the army courtesy of a waiver for a felony or misdemeanour, representing a 42 per cent increase in the use of waivers since 2000.
The Department of Justice cites losing your "right" to serve in the military as one consequence of a felony conviction. "Exceptions to the prohibition on military enlistment ... may be authorized by the Secretary of the affected branch of the service in meritorious cases," says the guidance.
In military jargon these "meritorious cases" warrant what are called "moral waivers."
In 2007 it published information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act which led it to call the proliferation of ex-cons in the military a "major recruitment trend" which it said was "a cause, effect, or even correction of the military's apparent recruitment problem."
It found the number of convicted felons enlisting in the US military nearly doubled in two years, from 824 in 2004 to 1,605 in 2006.
In that period a total of 4,230 convicted felons were enlisted in the military, including people guilty of rape and murder.
On top of this, 43,977 soldiers signed up who had been found guilty of a serious misdemeanour, which includes assault.
Another 58,561 had drug-related convictions, but all were handed a gun and sent off to the Middle East. "The fact that the military has allowed more than 100,000 people with such troubled pasts to join its ranks over the past three years illustrates the problem we're having meeting our military needs in this time of war," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Centre at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Concerned veterans' groups picked up on the waiver system and urged the military to offer different incentives to recruits to end the necessity for the practice - such as an updated version of the GI Bill, which had provided education training to WWII veterans or better health care for reservists.
"These are safer strategies for attracting a solid core of defenders for our country," said Perry Jefferies, the veterans' outreach director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"The phrase 'moral waivers' euphemises the real problem," he added, "which is that some of these new soldiers are dangerous criminals.
"It is hard to capture the true effect of a violent criminal mixed into a unit with no warning and then put under tremendous stress."
Worried veterans were gaining support within Congress but as usual it was left to one courageous lawmaker to blaze a trail.
On this issue it was Representative Henry A Waxman, who in his position as chairman of the house oversight and government reform committee requested details from the Pentagon on the number of service members with felony convictions, information previously withheld from the public.
The data showed that army waivers for felony convictions had more than doubled in a year, from 249 waivers in 2006 to 511 in 2007, while the marines' waivers increased from 208 to 350 in the same period.
In a letter to David Chu, the Under Secretary of Defence for Personnel and Readiness, Waxman wrote: "The data you provided the Committee shows that there was a rapid rise in 2007 in the number of waivers the Army and Marine Corps granted to recruits convicted of serious felonies, such as aggravated assault and burglary. Some recruits were even granted waivers for felony convictions involving sexual assault and terrorist threats." Two involved planned domestic bomb attacks.
These convictions also included 87 waivers for those convicted of assault and maiming, sometimes with a dangerous weapon.
The marines also gave a number of waivers to those convicted of rape, sexual assault, incest and other sex crimes.
Another lawmaker with his finger on the pulse was Representative Marty Meehan who, along with Representative Waxman was trying to get more information from the Pentagon.
"The data is crystal clear," he said. "Our armed forces are under incredible strain and the only way that they can fill their recruiting quotas is by lowering their standards. By lowering standards, we are endangering the rest of our armed forces and sending the wrong message to potential recruits across the country."
This unraveling of the US military's moral fibre was a large factor in the rise in criminal acts within the military. During the "war on terror," for example, one in three female soldiers reported being victims of some form of sexual assault while in service, dwarfing the one in six women in the civilian world.
The military was on the back foot trying to explain this one away. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, retaliated by saying that waivers "are used judiciously and granted only after a thorough review," adding, "The department strives to maintain high standards ensuring that military recruits surpass the overall qualifications of the contemporary American youth population."
Others spun it as a civil rights issue. "The thing is, you've got to give people an opportunity to serve," said Lieutenant General James D Thurman, the army's operations chief. "We are growing the army fast, there are some waivers ... it hasn't alarmed us yet."
For some recruiters and commanders it seems soldiers with criminal records were also viewed kindly because as proven "risk-takers" they were more likely to succeed in combat.
"Gang members, ex-cons, extremists, they are all more 'war-like' than your average soldier - there's no doubt that's attractive to the military, it's definitely a factor," Hunter Glass told me.
Douglas Smith of Army Recruiting Command also put forward the thesis that because there "are more and more young people getting caught up in the criminal justice system than in the past," the US military has had to become more lenient to compensate. This explanation should not be dismissed. The growing numbers of Americans put behind bars was a scandal in itself.
In 2008, it was found that one in 100 adult Americans was actually behind bars as the prison population ballooned to 1.6 million, the highest in the country's history.
It was particularly acute among those segments of the population which have traditionally proven the trustiest military fodder.
One in every 36 Hispanics was behind bars while one in nine black men between 20 and 34 was also locked up.
To the military brass, disenfranchising vast swathes of individuals from ethnic minorities didn't make any sense - now, the government wouldn't just lock you up, it would send you to war afterward.
It was a straight path, made even smoother by the fact that a felony conviction in itself makes finding work very hard - a "death sentence" according to DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
A newly open military became the best option for a generation of disenfranchised and desperate Americans for advancement, educational opportunities and vocational training.
n Irregular Army: How The US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members And Criminals To Fight The War On Terror by Matt Kennard is published by Verso, price £16.99.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.