America’s all-volunteer military force is in crisis, and our veterans and military families can help.
With just two months left in the fiscal year, this promises to be the worst year for military recruiting since 1973, the year that the draft ended.
The Army, with the largest recruiting challenge in terms of raw numbers, is the smallest it’s been since 1939, two years before the United States entered World War II. Yet the Army has cut its recruiting targets to likely achievable levels instead of what’s required. The Air Force, which needs to replace about 50,000 members per year, was more than 4,000 recruits below where it should have been in late June. The Navy and the Marine Corps appear on track to meet their annual goals, but acknowledge the challenges of the current recruiting environment.
We need our veterans and military families to step up to help their country once again to prevent the national security crisis that would occur if our military were unable to fight and win when called upon. We need veterans’ assistance in issuing the call to serve and persuading more young people to answer. The situation is critical: The share of young adults who said they would consider military service currently stands at 9%, the lowest number since 2007, according to a Defense Department survey conducted in the fall of 2021.
Our veterans should be deeply engaged at all levels of the recruitment process, modeling how meaningful a life of service can be. They can help us broaden the pool just by showing up and demonstrating to potential enlistees that many people in the service are just like them: Our military is increasingly composed of minorities, women, and the children of immigrants. Veterans can also provide first-person accounts of how their time in the military enhanced their lives and served as a springboard to successful civilian lives.
Of course, there are many underlying factors that have contributed to the shortage of recruits. The COVID-19 pandemic affected service recruiters’ ability to do their jobs, because they were less effective via remote technology. A strong economy and tight labor market have provided more civilian opportunities for those who otherwise might have considered taking the oath. And fewer people in the right age range are eligible to serve because of obesity, criminal records, diagnosed mental health issues, and low test scores on military assessments.
We must examine the reasons why willing recruits are being disqualified and question whether these determinants remain relevant or need to be adjusted. Certain mental health conditions, for example, can increasingly be addressed and managed after enlistment. And the 21st century’s cyber warfare may not require the same standard of physicality historically demanded of recruits.
This is important because the recruitment crisis won’t just affect one year. Fewer recruits today mean fewer available candidates for key technical training, professional development, and leadership positions in the years to come. Especially concerning is what will happen to the ranks of our noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, and staff noncommissioned officers, or SNCOs, the undeniable backbone of the all-volunteer force.
Recruiting and retention bonuses are currently being offered, but they’re unsustainable and aren’t a long-term solution. And retention bonuses will age our military.
Still, panels of experts considering the recruitment shortage agree that the hardest challenge we face is the declining propensity to serve our nation. And that’s where veterans can come in.
Most veterans say they’re proud of their service, and almost 80% have indicated that they would recommend military service to someone close to them. Veterans can be exemplars of national service, helping steer our age-eligible population to national, community, and military service in every part of our country.
Veteran service organizations and peer networks like Team RWB, Team Rubicon, The Travis Manion Foundation, The Mission Continues, and Student Veterans of America also have roles to play. All emphasize continued service and leadership in our communities and on our campuses. Community serving organizations should welcome these organizations and peer networks for joint opportunities for these veterans to engage with communities at large and where they can be the exemplars of continued service in leadership.
The life cycle of the all-volunteer force doesn’t end with the transition to veteran status, and helping with recruitment is a new way that veterans can serve.
Our future depends on a strong all-volunteer force, enabled by a dedicated and committed veteran community.
Marine Corps Reserve Col. Matthew F. Amidon is director of veterans and military families at the George W. Bush Institute.
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