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America's Military Recruitment Crisis

America's Military Recruitment Crisis

Beyond generational differences and "marketing problems," the U.S. military's recruitment crisis may just be self-inflicted.

Rebecca Burgess

Is Gen Z to blame for America's military recruitment crisis? If only it were that simple. Any phenomenon relating to a complex, multipart institution whose dynamics are downwind of society is bound to have not just one cause, but many.  

For the two-plus years that the military’s branches (outside of the U.S. Marines) have faced significant shortages of incoming recruits, analysts have invoked many arguments for the causes why: low unemployment, Covid, the obesity epidemic, the “broken veteran” narrative, civil-military tensions with an all-volunteer force, the forever wars, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, an overreliance on the military family pipeline, “wokeness,” overhyped accusations of “right-wing extremism” among those who serve, limited geographic draw, and, finally, failing to meet digitally native Gen Z where it’s at. 

While an overgeneralization, these “reasons why” can be more or less classified as marketing problems, and the Pentagon seems to be treating them as such. But what if there are more tangible, and more fundamental, reasons for the crisis? Institutional barriers to join are not insignificant. We also must look even to the “product” itself—the military as it functions today.

In terms of barriers, some keen-eyed observers have begun drawing attention to the military’s recent medical records modernization effort, which went into effect in March 2022. While “MHS Genesis” is a fantastic concept for active-duty military and those transitioning into the VA health care system (no more having to keep track of paper records!), it’s proving a nightmare for potential recruits. 

The record system requires a person’s full prescription medication history, as National Review’s Luther Ray Abel recently explained. “If someone has had painkillers prescribed by a doctor working at a hospital, more than likely they got surgery. We then need all the documents explaining why a prescription was made.” Moms everywhere knows what this means—endless calls and visits to doctors’ offices to track down explanations for care prescribed and documentation of why. The delay this is creating in terms of time is profound. 

But the military “doesn’t like a medicated recruit unless he’s a Motrin devotee,” and can pretty much use any prescription as grounds for rejection. This hits high-performing, athletic recruits particularly hard, as they’re likely to have been injured at some point. And it also hits today’s youth hard with what is increasingly just another aspect of their lives—a mental health diagnosis. A 2022 survey found that 42 percent of Gen Z has a mental health diagnosis; a 2023 report claims that 60 percent has a “medically diagnosed anxiety condition.” The military has not determined new standards to differentiate between, say, chronic depression or psychotic behavior versus ADHD. And, as Abel notes, “White kids are treated for mental health at twice the rate of others, and boys (9.8 percent) were medicated more often than girls (7 percent).” Not surprisingly, the Army is experiencing a sharp decline in White recruits. 

Another obstacle that’s worth revisiting: Currently, single parents with a dependent under eighteen years old cannot join the Army. They have to give up guardianship of all children prior to the duration of at least the first enlistment (two to six years) to be eligible to join. But with 119,186 single parents serving in the U.S. military in 2021, it seems clear that the broader military–beyond the Army–has figured out how to work with this population.  

Considering that only around 10 percent of the U.S. armed forces are designated to serve in combat, there must be thousands of military jobs that a single parent with a dependent could qualify for that would not undercut the effectiveness of the institution as a whole. With roughly eleven million single-parent households currently in the United States, now seems a rational time to reassess this policy.

But then there’s the matter of the military “product” itself. Americans are increasingly unfamiliar with who members of the military are and what they do and how. Breaking stories about the military’s inability to house service members in conditions that are safe, sanitary, and not infested with mold can only further their outdated prejudices about the military being a last-resort option for those at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. 

This summer, one of the Army’s largest bases, Fort Cavazos (formerly Hood) in Texas, could barely operate two out of its ten major dining operations, and did not advertise to soldiers which would be open and when. Conditions at this summer’s ROTC Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, might possibly have been even worse, with cadets having to sometimes eat expired MREs (a “meal, ready-to-eat” in a sealed bag) when dining services were suspended. Fort Knox is supposed to be the nation’s “Gold Standard Army Installation.”

This isn’t even to touch on scandal and morale within each of the military’s service branches. The Navy (or Coast Guard, for that matter) can’t seem to shake itself free from scandals involving its officers, whether with defense contractors or otherwise. The Army followed its familiar pattern of behavior when it recently opted merely to slap the wrist of a male lieutenant colonel rather than severely discipline him for having hid a video recording device in the dressing room of a teen-centric clothing store in California. 

Just last year more than a handful of Special Operators at Fort Liberty (formerly Bragg) found themselves under questioning in relation to drug trafficking and even possible sex trafficking of underage girls. In 2022, the Air Force Academy had to expel twenty-two cadets and put on probation 210 more for cheating and plagiarism. Accounts of “toxic leadership” and the need for reform within the senior officer ranks have been proliferating for close to a decade now. And who among us willingly rushes to join a toxic workplace culture?

None of this presents a novel or unprecedented situation for the U.S. military. It has been here before—most recently in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the armed forces struggled and learned its way through the transition from a conscript military to an all-volunteer force. The military emerged stronger and better—and more attractive to a diverse cadre of potential recruits—after undergoing that baptism by fire. But it only did so by its senior leaders being honest with themselves about the true sources of its problems, having the courage to swim upstream against entrenched modes of thinking and behavior, and by knowing when and how to adapt to new circumstances. It fixed its product even while it was working on its marketing. Our military can do the same again, today.

Rebecca Burgess is senior editor at American Purpose, senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, and a visiting fellow at Independent Women's Forum.

Image: Members of the Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team perform. (Unsplash: Katrina Berban)

United StatesEconomicsDemocracyPolitical Philosophy