A time-consuming medical waiver process and a perception among potential enlistees that they’ll “fall behind” peers in career advancement by serving in the military are among factors contributing to the most significant recruiting shortfalls in the half-century history of the nation’s all-volunteer armed forces.
But recruiting chiefs for the Department of Defense’s (DOD) four largest military branches have dismissed suggestions that Americans are avoiding military service because they believe it has been “politicalized” in the last decade as service to a specific president.
“We’re not hearing that. That’s not a part of the recruiting pitch,” Marine Corps Recruiting Commander Maj. Gen. William Bowers told the Senate Armed Services Committee Personnel Subcommittee during a Dec. 6 hearing. “That’s not part of who we are.”
“That does not resonate with the issues on the minds of recruits,” Air Force Recruiting Service Commander Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein said. “We are an apolitical entity by nature.”
Only the Marine Corps and newly-created Space Force met recruiting goals the last two fiscal years, while the three largest branches fell short or marginally attained reconfigured goals. Collectively, the DOD missed active-duty targets for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23)—starting Oct. 1, 2022—by 15 percent.
The Army missed FY22 and FY23 recruiting goals by 30,000 active-duty soldiers, leaving the nation’s largest military force nearly 10-percent smaller than two years ago.
The Navy also fell shy in FY23 even after lowering its recruiting quota in FY22, increasing its oldest enlistment age to 41 from 39, and relaxing other standards, including for those with criminal backgrounds. Right now, the sea service has 12,000 fewer sailors than two years ago.
The Air Force met its FY22 goal but in FY23, missed its target for the first time since 1999 in what the Pentagon calls the “most challenging recruiting environment in the 50 years of the all-volunteer force,” primarily because of a strong job market and quality-of-life issues, including housing.
In addition, the DOD maintains that recruitment efforts are hampered by the reality that only 23 percent of 17-to-24 year olds are eligible, or capable, of serving because of obesity, low test scores, criminal records, and behavioral health issues.
Plus, the Pentagon notes, surveys show only 9 percent of the nation’s military-age population has “a propensity to serve” in the armed forces, underscoring a growing “civilian and military cultural divide” where more than 80 percent of those now serving in the military come from families of military veterans.
“The military recruiting crisis should be our top priority. I don’t know how we can expect to have a military if we can’t solve this issue,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said, noting that if reserves are included, the Army is 40,000 volunteers short.
“For context, that is more troops than we currently have stationed in Germany or on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “This is causing serious readiness concerns [that could] affect the Army’s ability to respond to the full spectrum of armed conflict. The world’s not getting safer right now, as we all know.”
Mr. Scott, a Navy veteran, said the Navy is now 9,000 sailors short of filling combat ship berths. “Ships without enough sailors are less effective and increase the danger to our own ships as well as those around them,” he said.
Subcommittee Chair Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that since Congress began scrutinizing the recruiting shortfalls, among issues that have emerged is the DOD’s adoption of MHS Genesis, an electronic health record system that can add weeks to the recruiting process.
Medical Waiver System Needs Revision
“The system appears also to be flagging applicants with manageable or long-healed injuries, triggering the requirement for the recruit to obtain a medical waiver before they can actually join,” she said, recalling that “one otherwise healthy applicant” waited two months to prove a childhood wrist sprain was not a disqualifying medical condition.
“And this is not a one-off problem,” Ms. Warren said, noting that since MHS Genesis became the recruit screening service several years ago, the average time between a Navy applicant’s final interview and enlistment has nearly doubled. The Army Recruiting Command reports the process has been extended “70 days or longer.”
“It’s a problem if it’s taking healthy applicants longer to get through a bureaucratic screening process. But it’s an even bigger problem if all of that red tape is causing some healthy applicants to drop out of the recruitment process altogether,” she said.
Ms. Warren said the DOD’s Inspector General has offered recommendations that the military branches have agreed to adopt. She said the panel was assured revisions would be implemented by October.
But that has not happened.
All four recruiting commanders said they will respond to the IG recommendations by February, prompting Ms. Warren to warn, “We’re going to hold you to this. There is a real disconnect between the perspective of recruiters on the ground seeing how this electronic health record system is undermining their efforts and DOD’s willingness to fix this problem.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said “a top reason people express an unwillingness [to enlist] is a belief they would ‘fall behind.’”
He said high schoolers, especially without veterans in their families, “conclude if they serve in the military, yes, they can be some part of something greater than themselves but they worry those who didn’t serve in the military will have moved ahead of them in terms of opportunities. I think that’s a key issue.”
“The Army teaches valuable skills and provides exceptional benefits,” Army Recruiting Commander Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis said. “I want our nation’s youth to know the Army is a career-accelerator and the personal benefits to service extend far beyond cash bonuses, healthcare, and housing allowances.”
“If you’re coming out of high school, we will train you in a skill set and give you that experience,” Navy Recruiting Commander RAdm. Alexis Walker said. “You build leadership skills. You build teamwork skills that enable you to continue with your path. I tell them the Navy offers every opportunity to be successful, however they define it.”