Uncle Sam wants you for the US Army, but he's going to have to make some changes first. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Unsplash.
On June 23, the United States Army made the controversial decision to waive the minimum education requirement for a limited number of recruits. The harshly criticized decision, though quickly reversed, served as a stark reminder that the United States military has a serious manpower problem.
In May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville testified before Congress that only 23% of Americans ages 17-24 are qualified to serve in the military without a waiver. Factors like poor physical fitness, medical conditions, and illicit drug use among the nation’s youth significantly limit the pool of qualified candidates. And beyond the physical and mental requirements, interest in military service has hit its lowest point since 2007, with just 9% of qualified candidates expressing interest in service, according to a recent Pentagon survey obtained by NBC news.
What explains the dwindling interest in military service? Well, think about it. First of all, young Americans today have an unprecedentedly extensive understanding of what life as a US service member really entails. They’ve seen the combat footage on YouTube; they’ve seen the day-to-day lives of service members on TikTok and Instagram; they’ve read the countless personal accounts of veterans returning home and struggling with mental health issues and suicide. And furthermore, they likely know a GWOT vet or two who has given them their candid, unfiltered accounts of war and life in the military. All of which is to say, they know what they’d be signing up for and that it’s not as fun as Call of Duty or In the Army Now.
Members of the Marine Corps’ Delayed Entry Program perform a flexed-arm hang as part of an initial strength test. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Bryan Nygaard.
The times have changed. The US armed forces are recruiting from a much different talent pool than they were two decades ago. Our society has changed a lot, and so have certain elements of our culture. Patriotism, the GI Bill, and the promise of getting to drive a tank aren’t cutting it with the Gen Z-ers. And hunting down terrorists doesn’t have the same widespread appeal today that it did in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The military also has to compete with private sector employers who can lure America’s best and brightest with sweet perks like not getting shot at and livable wages.
So how can the United States military convince this next generation of recruits that military service is the best option for them? The simple answer is by adapting. If the United States military wants more good troops, they’re going to have to get with the times and make some concessions. But never fear, Uncle Sam, we’ve got some ideas. Here are five really great ones.
The US military seems hellbent on showing its age by vehemently adhering to antiquated appearance standards. About 100 years ago, in America, it was widely considered that beards, tattoos, and any hairstyle not found on a mall mannequin was unprofessional. Styles have since changed, thankfully, and the military needs to adjust its standards accordingly.
It’s time to cut the 1930s Sears catalog look. People don’t look like that anymore, and you don’t have to look like Don Draper from Mad Men to be considered professional these days. If the military loosened its tattoo policies and permitted service members to grow beards and maintain any hairstyles that do not interfere with proper wear of the uniform, it would open the recruiting pool significantly and also permit a generation that values individuality a chance to maintain some semblance of it instead of having it completely and arbitrarily stripped from them.
A delayed entry program Airman suits up in an explosive ordnance disposal suit. U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.
Oh, and as for the whole “The hair will get in the way of a gas mask” argument: You and I both know that’s a crock of shit promulgated by bald dudes with patchy beards. Make deployed service members shave when downrange, if it’s that much of a concern. Nations all over the world permit their service members to have beards and more relaxed hairstyles than ours, and wouldn’t you know it, not one of them has collapsed or been wiped out by a CBRNE attack. Plus, they look way cooler.
This one is going to give the powers that be a coronary, but I’m going to say it: If the military let troops go home as soon as their work for the day was finished, recruitment would rise faster than the blood pressure of a first sergeant who has just caught you with your hands in your pockets.
By our estimation, in any given workweek in the United States military, your average service member will spend anywhere from eight to 120 hours doing absolutely nothing because of the military’s “Hurry Up and Wait” culture. Those of us who have served or are currently serving: Think about your time in service. How long have you sat around and waited for leadership to get out of a meeting? How many hours have you spent doing “busy work” because your actual work was done? How many hours have you spent sitting in the shade throwing rocks at a Gatorade bottle 30 feet away?
A Delayed Entry Program sailor performs pushups during a training event. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Anastasia Puscian.
A popular idea among older generations is that the younger generations don’t want to work. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t; regardless, everyone can agree that busy work isn’t actually work — it’s bullshit. If Uncle Sam wants to see recruitment improve, the military needs to switch to an objective-based work day and permit service members to go home when the actual work is done.
It seems a little silly that, at 18 years old, a young service member can carry a rifle, fire a rocket launcher, drop thousands of dollars worth of ordnance, operate millions of dollars-worth of equipment, travel around the world, kill people, and risk their lives, BUT … cracking open a Miller Lite on a Friday night is simply out of the question.
How many people under 21 would flood to the recruiters office just for the chance to shave three years off their legal drinking age? The surge in recruitment numbers would probably be unsettling. Is it a perfect idea? Certainly not. It might be best to restrict the younger recruits’ drinking to military installations only. This would hopefully keep them from drunk live-streaming themselves straight into traffic or buying up the local supply of hard seltzers and other strange things kids are drinking these days. Keep in mind that age is no guarantee of maturity, and there are plenty of people out there twice that age doing dumb shit with and without booze. Take the guy in the video below, for example.
Have you ever wondered why the military doesn’t let troops quit? Sure, in some cases, a service member can leave the military before their official ETS date, but that usually entails a lengthy and painful process that could leave you with a dishonorable or other-than-honorable discharge. Many are deterred from enlisting, or reenlisting, based on this fact alone. A lot can happen in a four-to-six year enlistment, and if you end up not liking it or getting hurt or you otherwise can’t perform, you’re stuck until your contract is up.
No one wants to be stuck in a bad deal. People would be more likely to sign up for military service if they could easily walk away without smudges on their records. Beyond recruitment, no one wants a quitter in their unit. We all know the type, and we can all agree that things would have been a lot better had that person been allowed to walk away so they could be replaced by someone who actually wanted to be there. It’s not in our ethos as American warfighters to quit, but when shit gets hairy, we’d much rather fight alongside the guy who could quit and didn’t versus the guy who wanted to quit but couldn’t.
Plus, let’s face it: The kids these days are kinda wimps. Most of them don’t have the physical and mental fortitude to survive a full enlistment. Am I right? *Laughs in crippling back pain and reaches for Prozac.*
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an army marches on its stomach, and there is no better marching fuel than a half-off order of Nachos BellGrande. Wash it all down with a nice Baja Blast, then puke it all back up on the PT field the next morning. Now that’s real living. Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?
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Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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