Here’s what’s going on with the problem of low military recruitment

PolitiFact | The military in 2022 had one of the worst recruiting years since the all-volunteer force began in 1973.
Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, swears in Lance Cpl. Samantha Harris, center, and others, as they reenlist at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial on Feb. 23 in Arlington, Va.
Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, swears in Lance Cpl. Samantha Harris, center, and others, as they reenlist at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial on Feb. 23 in Arlington, Va. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]
Published Sept. 30

To listen to some Republicans tell it, the U.S. military is suffering from a chronic case of “wokeism” that has created a recruiting disaster.

“We are so woke in the military we are losing recruits right and left,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said Sept. 6 on Fox News. “We’ve got people doing poems on aircraft carriers over the loudspeaker. It is absolutely insane the direction that we’re headed in our military, and we’re headed downhill, not uphill.”

Since February, Tuberville has blocked hundreds of Pentagon promotions and nominations in protest over the Defense Department’s policy granting time off and paid travel to employees seeking abortion services. (The Senate circumvented Tuberville’s hold to confirm a new Joint Chiefs of Staff chairperson, a new U.S. Marine Corps commandant and a new U.S. Army chief of staff.)

In his 2024 campaign for president, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who served in the military as a judge advocate general officer, has similarly characterized “wokeness” in the armed services as a key obstacle to recruitment.

“As commander in chief, on Day One, we are going to eliminate all the politicization from the military, all the woke, all the social experimentation,” DeSantis said at an Aug. 4 campaign stop in Iowa. “We’re restoring it to its proper function and you will see the recruiting surge as a result.”

But are these “woke” Pentagon policies fueling — or even contributing to — the recruitment crisis? No, that’s not what people most knowledgeable about the military and its recruitment issues say.

Other than the abortion-related reimbursements, Republicans have criticized drag shows on military grounds, military training that supports diversity, equity and inclusion, and health care coverage for transgender members to get certain surgeries or hormone treatments.

Some of these practices and initiatives are new, and more rigorous study would be needed to evaluate whether they could affect recruiting, military researchers said. But evidence so far shows these claims are oversimplified and overblown, with surveys finding that wokeness isn’t a high concern among potential recruits.

Experts say recruiting challenges are being driven by a mix of traditional issues — fear of death or injury — with newer problems, such as the shrinking number of eligible young Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help, either.

Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, said surveys of young adults who decided not to join showed they were concerned “over physical or psychological injury, perceived incompatibility of military service with their desired life or career paths, and apprehensions regarding the treatment of service members.”

When asked to list other reasons they didn’t join, Schwegman said potential recruits didn’t cite wokeness or policies that might be considered “woke.”

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Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former member of the National Security Council, said concerns over the policies likely have marginal and indirect effects on recruiting.

Feaver said that the biggest drivers affecting recruiting “by far” include competition from the civilian (nonmilitary) labor market, the lingering effects of COVID-19-era restrictions, the gradual decline in the number of young people who meet recruiting standards, and changes in the way pharmaceuticals are administered and tracked.

Indirectly, Feaver said, discussion of “woke” policies could be shaping the advice that influential people — family, coaches, clergy and other trusted community members — might give potential recruits.

Several experts said that political skirmishes could also be having an impact. As Republicans decry what it calls wokeism, some Democrats have criticized right-wing extremism in the ranks. Both could serve to make matters worse.

What is going on with recruiting?

The military in 2022 had one of the worst recruiting years since the all-volunteer force began in 1973. The U.S. Army missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers, and the Army, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy expect to miss their goals in 2023.

Military officials and experts have cited reasons such as low unemployment, families advising against joining, and a shrinking pool of Americans fit to serve — not diversity and inclusion efforts.

Recent numbers suggest that 77% of young Americans wouldn’t be eligible to serve without first getting a waiver. Top reasons people are determined to be ineligible include failing entrance exams or common health concerns such as obesity and mental illness. Prior criminal activity, including drug abuse, is also a barrier.

Over the last decade, the Defense Department has seen a growing disconnect between the general public and the military, Schwegman said: People are less informed about military opportunities.

She attributed that partly to a shrinking veteran population. Young people have less exposure to service members as role models.

In 2018, about 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. This coincides with decreases in active-duty personnel. Over the last 50 years, the number of people on active duty has dropped from 3.5 million in 1968, to about 1.4 million (or less than 1% of all U.S. adults) in today’s all-volunteer force.

“The residual effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (limited access to high school students), improved employment opportunities, disinterest in public service, as well as the low number of youth who qualify for military service, further exacerbate recruiting challenges,” Schwegman said.

Under existing medical standards, which the military has been rethinking, would-be recruits can be turned away because they take ADHD medication or antidepressants. Although recreational marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, people who use it can still be disqualified from joining the military.

The new use of electronic medical records means there are more records available than ever that shed light on a person’s medical history.

“In the past, it was an interview. You would ask a kid if they ever broke a bone, had asthma, etc., and then the recruiter would hunt down medical records,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist who studies military recruitment and retention at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institute. “But now, suddenly, there’s just this flood of information and it’s created a lot of additional things to sort through, and more that could potentially disqualify a recruit.”

The rise in the use of these medications, combined with the military’s new record-keeping system, called Genesis, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of recruits who need a formal waiver to join, Feaver said.

Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin a letter Sept. 13 asking whether Genesis, first used for screening recruits in 2022, had slowed recruiting by forcing qualified applicants to secure waivers.

Experts also said a robust job market reduces the economic incentive to join the military. Civilian employers typically offer better compensation when they are struggling to fill jobs.

“Recruits don’t want to go through all the rigors of joining when they can get a better-paying job in their hometown,” Feaver said. “When unemployment is high the military pathway looks more appealing.”

The COVID-19 pandemic widened the gap between the military and young people. Schools turned to online instruction and prevented recruiters from meeting and visiting with students on campuses.

Asch, from Rand, has studied military recruiting for nearly 40 years and said these types of recruiting challenges have happened before, and each time it’s treated like an insurmountable crisis.

But history shows that it can be overcome, she said.

In the 1990s, the internet boom affected recruiting as more tech jobs became available. In the 2000s, a strong economy and the war in Iraq led to less military interest among younger Americans.

“I’m an optimist, and people may disagree with me, but I’ve seen this show before and we always turn it around,” Asch said. “I think we will again.”