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Military recruitment falls short after decades of war, withdrawal from Afghanistan

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(The Center Square) – The Pentagon came up short on its recruitment goals, raising fresh questions about the challenges of maintaining an all-volunteer force.

The reasons for the shortfall, even with reduced recruitment targets, is multifaceted, according to military officials. The military services together missed goals by about 41,000 recruits in fiscal year 2023, said Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Ashish Vazirani.

“That number understates the challenge before us as the services lowered [their] end-strength goals in recent years, in part because of the difficult recruiting environment,” he said. “The all-volunteer force faces one of its greatest challenges since inception.”

Corie Weathers, a licensed professional counselor, military culture expert and author of “Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention, and Leadership,” said two decades of war after Sept. 11, 2001, and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan also have played a role in the recruitment shortfall.

“I think there’s a lot of focus on Gen Z is the problem, not being fit for duty, or American disconnect, and there’s definitely some quality of life issues happening in the [U.S. Department of Defense] as well,” she told The Center Square. “So I think it’s very complicated. And it’s all of those things.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t be ignored.

“Probably a good half of our forces are older millennials and Gen X who experienced most of that two decades post 9-11,” Weathers said. “They just had this sort of compounding stress that just continued throughout those two decades culminating and I know everybody globally went through COVID. But when COVID really hammered us on top of all the stress that we already going through, it was almost like a false peak or the psychological breaking point that happened after COVID.”

Then came President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Weathers called it “a moral injury for the force.”

“So what you’re seeing now when it comes to retention and recruitment on the parent side, or the Gen X side, is those of us we have Gen Z kids and we’re still in those of us who are Gen X, who endured a lot of that over the years are actually discouraging a lot of their Gen Z kids from joining and when you have 80 to 83% of your recruits traditionally have come from those with a family line,” she said. “Especially parents that are already in it’s kind of become a family business. And so that’s going to definitely impact your recruitment numbers, if those that you’re trying to retain are no longer encouraging their kids to join.”

The falling recruitment numbers could have widespread effects. Weathers said it could lead to bases closing, which would affect the local economies “and it’s a very real possibility an all-volunteer force can shift back to a draft,” she said.

The Defense Department’s senior officials testified in December about shortfalls in Army, Navy and Air Force recruiting in the fiscal year that ended in September at a hearing of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. The Marine Corps and Space Force hit their recruiting goals.

The all-volunteer force was created after the draft ended in 1973.

Vazirani cited multiple reasons for the recruitment shortfall, which he called “complex and multifaceted.”

Among the reasons: A strong economy that means more options for young people, a smaller eligible population, Generation Z’s generally low trust in institutions and fewer young people with family members who have served in the military.

In 1995, 40% of young people had a parent who served in the military, Vazirani said. By 2022, 12% had a parent who had served.

“This has led to a disconnect between the military and a large share of society,” he said.

Vazirani said that “while the picture of the current recruiting environment is acutely difficult, the Defense Department and the military services are working together to resolve issues, improve processes, and expand awareness of the many opportunities military service offers.”

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