The Gritty Truths Behind Military Recruitment Today

Article by Matt Gallagher

Almost two decades into the forever war, recruiting new servicemembers for the American military has become more complicated.

“When I came to this assignment, everyone said, Oh, you got it easy — the South? Military community? You got nuthin’ to worry about…but it’s been hard. A legit hustle. These kids grew up during the wars, seen their parents come and go. They know what military life is really like…can’t sell them on the perks, on the adventure. Yeah, the economy is good. That makes [recruiting] harder. Yeah, there’s a lot of kids out there who can’t qualify, because of the various requirements. Can’t speak to national trends. But here? Here it’s the wars, man. It’s killing me.”

Those are the words of a staff sergeant working as a recruiter in the United States Army in the summer of 2019. (He wishes to remain anonymous for, well, obvious reasons.) Recruiting fresh bodies and young minds to the armed forces is a tried and true tradition — the Roman Empire offered farms and a share of war spoils for aspiring legionnaires, while Napoleon’s recruiters used to frequent taverns late at night for recruits. Since the American green machine ended the draft and switched to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the onus of collecting new manpower lays entirely with recruiters.

It’s a dirty, often thankless job, but someone’s gotta do it. And it’s getting harder.

The Army fell short of its recruiting numbers goal in 2018 by a few thousand — the first time this has happened since the peak of the Iraq War in the aughts. (The Army’s just one branch, sure, but it’s by far the largest service, with 37 percent of servicemembers.) What the good staff sergeant above called “various requirements”? It’s a legitimate concern. 

According to an August 2018 report in The American Conservative, “One in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards…and one in ten have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station.”

It’s not just a skeptical mom these recruiters have to convince, these days.

“Yeah, we can get waivers for some physical/mental/moral character concerns,” an Army major who once worked as a medical recruiter at Fort Hamilton, New York, told me. “And you need to make the mission. That’s the job. But you still have to weigh that against putting these people in uniform. Would you want them in a firefight next to you? Would you want them running an aid station for combat casualties? Sometimes the answer’s no.”

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