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Dulles, Virginia – America’s military is failing to attract enough young people to its ranks, jeopardizing readiness and harming morale. If current trends continue, historic shortfalls will be reported at the end of the fiscal year in September.
With three months to go, the Army has met a mere 40 percent of its goal, the Coast Guard has reached only 55 percent, and the Air Force is 4,000 recruits shy of their mark. Meantime, the Navy is relying on Tom Cruise and Maverick to generate excitement for their brand.
“Every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment,” observed Senator Thom Tillis, “is going in the wrong direction.” Tillis sits on the Armed Services committee and sees the trend as a “threat to the all-volunteer force.”
The Pentagon’s ideas for fixing the problem amount to tinkering around the edges or worse.
Six months into the fiscal year, the Defense Department (DoD) announced a hocus-pocus 0.2 percent reduction in end strength to, ostensibly, prioritize quality over quantity. The reason, as explained by Michael McCord the comptroller for DoD, was to make the force “more capable,” when in reality, it was to accommodate teenage indifference to being all they can be. After that plan failed, the Pentagon adopted a more traditional government strategy – throwing cash at the problem. The Army and Air Force are offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000. The Navy is paying upward of $25,000, an unprecedented amount.
Major General Ed Thomas who heads up Air Force recruiting justifies the strategy because, he says, 18-20 year olds can command $25-$29 per hour starting salaries from Buc-ee’s, Target, Starbucks, Google, and Amazon, companies he cites as the military’s “competition.”
Appropriate compensation and benefits are vital to retention. Enlistment bonuses can be a motivator. But money alone is not the answer and Starbucks is not the military’s competition. Nor does the answer lie in relaxing personal appearance standards or accepting those with medical conditions like asthma that were once disqualifying. The Army even discarded its requirement for a high school diploma before backtracking on that less than a week later.
The recruiting crisis is less a problem of policy than it is failed leadership and a malpractice of brand management. President Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin own this fiasco because their words and actions have impugned the integrity of the troops and tarnished the military’s reputation, making enlistment unappealing to the natural pipeline of recruits.
They allowed 20 years of sacrifice in Afghanistan to end in tragedy and ignominy. They venerate a vaccine at the expense of valued service members. Already, more than 5,000 troops have been tossed to the curb for expressing concern about a vaccine mandate. Through NATO expansion, they are requiring our troops to defend more countries than ever before.
Biden and Austin have neglected to lead and failed to inspire. They have crushed the aspirations of those who would otherwise be inclined to serve our country.
Throughout our history, young Americans have joined our military for a variety of reasons, among them the desire to be part of an exceptional institution. Like great athletes who compete against the best, would-be recruits yearn to associate with the finest in their field. They wish to test themselves against demanding standards and stiff competition and experience the pride of having accomplished something most others are unable to achieve.
President Biden and Secretary Austin rarely miss an opportunity to sour potential recruits on the country they might serve. The decision to enlist is serious. It requires younger generations to understand the glory of our past and see the promise of our future which are too often obscured by the perennially aggrieved.
On Independence Day 2019, President Trump set an example when he took to the National Mall to recognize America’s history and heroes. He offered a detailed tribute to each branch of the military and praised individual members who “served with immense distinction.” Then Trump did what presidents don’t normally do – he asked our youth to serve. “To young Americans across our country,” the President urged, “now is your chance to join our military and make a truly great statement in life. And you should do it.”
Before Trump, no President issued a formal call to military service since Woodrow Wilson did in the lead-up to World War I. President Biden and Secretary Austin need to be active recruiters for America’s armed forces. If they don’t believe in the institution, who will?
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense. @TomKilgannon3 on Twitter.