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The military in 2022 had one of the worst recruiting years since the all-volunteer force began in 1973. But Pentagon policies criticized as being “woke” — like diversity trainings, time off and travel allowances for abortion access, and healthcare coverage for transgender members — are not the primary drivers of the issue, military experts told us.
It’s possible discussion of these policies could be shaping the advice that influential people — family members, coaches and other trusted community members — might give to potential recruits, but surveys have found that it isn’t a high concern among young Americans.
The biggest drivers affecting recruiting so far, experts say, include competition from the civilian labor market, the lingering effects of COVID-19 restrictions, the gradual decline in the number of young people who meet the standards and changes in the way pharmaceuticals are administered and tracked.
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 chairman, 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 issue 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."
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former member of the National Security Council during the Clinton and Bush administrations, 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.
Graduating cadets salute the graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy class of 2023 at Michie Stadium on May 27, 2023, in West Point, N.Y. (AP)
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.
The number of Gen Zers, people born from 1997 to 2012, is millions less than their millennial elders. Recent numbers also 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, et cetera, 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 recordkeeping 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."
RELATED: What does it mean to be ‘woke’?
CORRECTION, Sept. 29, 2023: The number of Gen Zers is millions less than their millennial elders. We have removed a more specific figure from a source that we learned was in error.
Fox News, Tommy Tuberville: Nobody has told them no in 3 years...we are so woke in the military, Sept. 6, 2023
The Washington Post, Opinion: Three service secretaries to Tuberville: Stop this dangerous hold on senior officers, Sept. 4, 2023
Insider, Sen. Tuberville slammed poetry by US sailors that is a time-honored tradition, Sept. 7, 2023
The Washington Post, Can this quirky Naval poetry tradition make a comeback?, Sept. 27, 2022
Navy Times, Admiral defends non-binary officer against attacks from GOP lawmakers, April 18, 2023
FactCheck.org, FactChecking Ron DeSantis’ Presidential Announcement, May 25, 2023
PBS, Why recruiting and confidence in America’s armed forces is so low right now, April 13, 2023
Fortune, Don’t blame ‘wokeness’ for the Army’s recruitment woes, says the Army, Feb. 13, 2023
Defense Department, Vice chiefs talk recruiting shortfalls, readiness issues, April 20, 2023
NBC News, Every branch of the military is struggling to make its 2022 recruiting goals, officials say, June 27, 2022
USNI News, Tough Military Recruiting Environment is About More than Low Unemployment, Experts Say, Dec. 1, 2022
USNI News, Military Services Competing Over the Same Recruiting Pool of Less Than 500,000, Feb. 14, 2023
War on the Rocks, How the anti-woke campaign against the u.s. military damages national security, April 7, 2023
Council on Foreign Relations, The president's inbox recap: The U.S. military recruiting crisis, June 16, 2023
Council on Foreign Relations, The uncertain future of the U.S. military’s all-volunteer force, July 18, 2023.
The Wall Street Journal, The military recruiting crisis: even veterans don’t want their families to join, June 30, 2023
Military Times, Senators press Pentagon on new medical system’s recruiting impact, Sept. 14, 2023
Email interview, Peter Feaver, Duke University professor and former member of the National Security Council during the Clinton and Bush administrations, Sept. 12-14, 2023
Phone interview, Beth Asch, senior economist who studies military recruitment and retention at Rand Corp., Sept. 13, 2023
Email interview, David Segal sociology professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on military recruiting, Sept. 13, 2023
Email interview, Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, spokesperson at the Department of Defense, Sept. 12-15, 2023