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Why finding people willing and qualified to fight for our country is not easy

Military points to COVID-19, low unemployment rates and young adults who fail to meet qualifications

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Utah National Guard stand in formation at Camp Williams in Bluffdale.

More than 7,000 Utah National Guard soldiers and airmen prepare for a pass-in-review ceremony at the 65th annual Governor’s Day at Camp Williams in Bluffdale on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Most branches of the U.S. military failed to meet their recruiting goals last year, and the trend of low enlistments is not an easy fix in an atmosphere in which a growing number of young adults feel less patriotic and fail to meet the requirements that make them eligible for enlistment, experts say.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of an all-volunteer military in the United States. As we take pause on Veterans Day this Saturday to reflect on the service of military veterans, the problem of recruiting shortages weighs heavy on the mind of the armed services. It also calls into question the nation’s military readiness in an increasingly hostile world.

This year, the military is reporting that the Army is expected to fall short of its 2023 fiscal recruitment goal by 15,000 people, the Navy will be 10,000 short and the Air Force missed its desired recruitment by 3,000.

Only the Marines and the Space Force, much smaller in overall numbers, met their goals.

One expert blames the initial downturn on COVID-19, according to Military.com.

“Being thrown off balance by COVID, I do think it threw them off their equilibrium,” Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who specializes in military recruiting, told the media outlet. “I think this was the last year that they could truly claim that inability to access students on high school and college campuses is what is throwing the overall recruiting environment.”

“I think next year will be reflective of longer-term issues,” she added.

According to the media outlet, the Air Force squeaked by to reach its recruiting goals in 2022, but officials knew this fiscal year would be the toughest in their history to reach that goal again.

“Ultimately, the service missed its enlisted active-duty recruiting goals for the first time since 1999, getting only 24,100 of the enlisted airmen of the 26,877 it needed. It did manage to reach its active duty officer goal of 967,” Military.com reported.

The challenge of Gen Z

Matthew Weiss, an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, wrote a book called “We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam,” detailing the recruitment crisis unfolding among Generation Z, defined as those born between 1997 and 2012.

“We are struggling. We are the first generation that came into elementary school with social media with iPhones. The constant pinging of likes, the social feedback of comments on Instagram and on Facebook, that causes a big mental health gap. And so as a generation, we’re struggling to sort of find our identity, and to ask our generation to serve is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge,” Weiss said. “I am a Gen Z and I have to speak for my generation.”

Weiss, who was interviewed on MSNBC, said the military now is not the military of World War II, and recruitment and retention standards need to be modernized.

In addition, he said the military needs to broker itself to a less patriotic generation as a place to build on the importance of networking and meeting new people.

“l looked at the military as the single greatest investment in my career, right? It’s the single best leadership factory that we have in this country that, frankly, exists in the world. And I wanted to learn how to lead and I looked at that truly as an investment in myself, and I think a lot of Gen Zers have a very similar desire to better themselves and to find places to better themselves in a very difficult, changing world,” Weiss said.

“Gen Z struggles for connections. We are very social. Well, the military is the world’s greatest physical social network that provides those key bonds and connections that you really can’t get anywhere else in any other job or any other sector of society.”

U.S. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth told the Committee on Armed Services in March that the challenges are daunting.

“We are experiencing the most challenging recruiting landscape in a generation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. She also addressed the issue in a media roundtable discussion.

Still, the Army and other branches of the service are pivoting and implementing generous enlistment bonuses, as well as incentives to stay on and help to get in.

In the committee hearing, she described the establishment of the Future Soldier Preparatory Course pilot program last year at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to support the accession of recruits who are inclined to serve but might need help improving their test scores or physical fitness. As of March 22 of this year, 4,219 course recruits have graduated and moved on to Basic Combat Training, representing a 98% success rate.

The decline of patriotism

That is key, she and others stressed, since only 23% of potential candidates between the ages of 16 and 21 make the cut. And that builds on the grim reality that only 9% of young adults are even interested in serving at all.

“There’s been a significant reduction in patriotism among some of the younger generations, even to the point where, again, they don’t even believe in the United States as a country or in democracy. There’s definitely that factor at play,” said Maj. Corey Lewis with the Utah Army National Guard’s executive office over the battalion’s recruiting command.

Lewis said the military competes heavily with the private business sector with companies like Amazon and McDonald’s that offer good wages for young adults, as well as 401Ks and tuition reimbursement in a tight job market with low unemployment rates.

Young adults are often turned off by the length of service contract with the military and there is that risk of potentially being in harm’s way upon deployment.

For the Utah Army National Guard, recruiters call the contract a six by two.

For six years, enlistees commit to one weekend a month of training and another two weeks a year for a period of six years. After that, for two years, they are classified as inactive ready reserve.

“They really have no association with the military other than being in a pool of people who could be called upon again at the time of major conflict,” Lewis said. It is also a period of time when they are eligible to reenlist.

But the problems with eligibility are tough to overcome.

An out-of-shape, mental health stricken United States

The obesity rates for ages 12 to 19 rose from 18% to 22% from 2017 to 2020, according to a study done by Utah Army National Guard Sgt. Major Dan Harris with the recruiting and retention battalion.

In addition, his numbers uncovered in 2020 show 20.9% of Americans ages 18 to 44 were receiving some sort of mental health treatment, and 15.4% of those Americans in this age range were taking medications for mental health to help cope with issues like anxiety or depression.

The military mandate on mental health prescription medication dictates that a potential candidate for enlistment has to be off that medication for a minimum of two years to start the enlistment process. Harris said the candidate might not have even taken the drug, but a prescription is enough to instigate the waiting period.

Harris says he believes that regulation needs to be scrutinized and possibly changed.

“I think they need to take a more in-depth look and update regulations on mental health disorders because we’re still using regulations from years and years ago, and it’s much more common now for people to have received treatment for mental health,” rather than decades ago.

Still, while the military has created some workarounds, Wormuth stressed to the congressional committee that the Army will not sacrifice quality for quantity and institute a massive overhaul for qualifications.

Aside from the pre-boot camp workarounds, the Army, Navy and other branches of the military are offering generous sign-up bonuses for enlistees.

The Army, at one point, dangled a $50,000 bonus, and the Navy announced that future sailors who leave for boot camp prior to January can get up to $150,000 in bonuses. Candidates in high school in the 2023-2024 school year who enlist through the delayed entry program and graduate high school by June can get $10,000.

The Navy is also offering an $8,000 tuition reimbursement package for active duty enlistees who want to an attend an accredited college.

Lewis says the Utah Army National Guard has been a shining star in an otherwise dark night sky.

“What I can say about recruiting here in Utah is that our our recruiting efforts have been far more successful than many of our peer states,” Lewis said, outpacing other branches of the military. “A lot of that we chalk up to the fact that Utah is very service oriented, we have a service oriented culture and so I know we still benefit from that.”

He added while the Utah Army National Guard can be called up for deployment because of its status as a U.S. military organization, it can also be activated by the governor to serve community needs — which is vitally important in times of natural disasters or other critical incidents that demand their level of expertise.

Harris said the Utah National Guard exceeded its recruiting goals, recruiting 538 new enlistees last year and 400 the year before.

“On the recruiting side we have actually been doing really well and our recruiters are working hard to get people,” Lewis said. “Our issue has been retention and keeping the soldiers that we do have.”

To that end, the Utah Legislature allocated new money for the Utah Army National Guard to help with this effort.

One funding block of $900,000 is aimed at reenlistment bonuses while $1 million has been set aside for tuition.

If you are in the Utah Army National Guard, it will pay your postsecondary education, including all the way up to a doctorate degree.

“I started recruiting in 2004. That’s how long I have been doing this and I have never seen these options available like they are now,” Lewis said. “Basically, if anyone has any desire to serve in the military, now is their time to come to try.”