If you don’t think so, ask the Department of Defense. DOD leaders will tell you that 75 percent of young Americans are unable to qualify for military service, primarily because they are too poorly educated, physically unfit, or have a criminal record.

One in four young people does not graduate from high school on time. Even among our nation’s high school graduates, nearly one in four seeking to enlist cannot because of low scores on the military’s exam for math, literacy and problem solving. Others have serious criminal records, or are too overweight to join.

The DOD is the country’s largest employer with wide-ranging personnel needs — everything from aircraft mechanics to interpreters to cyber experts. A limited recruitment pool jeopardizes our military readiness and threatens future national security.

That is why more than 300 retired generals and admirals of the national security organization Mission: Readiness support proven investments in the success of upcoming generations, like high-quality early childhood education, as a key to maintaining a strong defense. Early education can help children succeed in school, stay on the right side of the law, and even reduce their risk of becoming obese.

For example, children who participated in Michigan’s Perry Preschool program were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who did not. By age 27, those who did not attend the Perry Preschool were five times more likely to have been chronic criminal offenders than the children who participated. A separate, long-term study of Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers found similar results in improving education and reducing crime.

There is also new evidence showing that early learning programs that help children develop healthy eating and exercise habits early in life can contribute to reversing the childhood obesity epidemic that has tripled in one generation.

These programs also produce a high return on investment. When you factor in the positive results of early education programs, including reductions in crime, education savings and fewer social services, the return on investment is as much as $16 for every $1 invested.

High quality early education can help reverse all three of the primary disqualifiers to military service.

As the U.S. Army’s recent report Strong Students, Strong Futures, Strong Nation says, “In the coming decade, the United States will face a significant workforce shortfall and both the civilian and military sectors may not have the skilled labor required to meet the demands of a knowledge-based economy. The effect on our ability to compete globally will be devastating if we do not act immediately and forcefully to reverse the impact.”

As leaders in Congress work to reduce our national debt in a responsible manner, they must weigh carefully — for good reason — the impact of their decisions on national security. As negotiations on deficit reduction move forward, I urge members of Congress to prioritize investments in early learning that will lay the foundation for well-educated, physically fit and law-abiding Americans who are qualified and eligible to serve their country in any way they choose. We cannot jeopardize our long-term national security interests by cutting these proven investments in our children, even to protect short-term national security spending.

The military recruit class of 2024 entered Kindergarten this fall. If protecting national security is our goal, we must ensure that all young Americans have the opportunity to stand up and be recognized as the next Greatest Generation.

Seip is a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force.