As a young man in West Texas, I loved to fish. The challenge, as anyone from that area knows, is to pick the right pond, or catch nothing but a nasty sunburn. Today, I am fortunate to be leading the Department of Defense to the right recruiting ponds that will help us remain the most powerful all-volunteer fighting force in the world.
Recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke about how the department is reaching further than ever into communities across America, trying to draw the nation’s best talent into our armed forces because the recruiting market is more disconnected from the military than ever before.
In 1995, 40 percent of kids or young adults had a parent who had served in the military. Today that number is 15 percent. Today, only half of our youth can even identify the names of our services, and only 31 percent of moms and 44 percent of dads would recommend military service to their sons and daughters.
As a result, our military’s recruiting pools are shrinking. This needs to change.
Our military must strive to become more reflective of the society we serve, both geographically and demographically. As the secretary has said — we need to fish from new ponds. That is not to say that we should compromise the important standards that make our military force the finest in the world. However, it does mean that we should review policies that are outdated and not in line with the society we serve and recruit from. Tattoo policies are a great example of this.
In order to fish from these new ponds, I see three distinct steps.
First, we must find new ponds; second, seed those ponds; and third, fish those ponds.
First, we have to find new ponds, expanding our outreach to communities. Our service members are connecting with future generations through a variety of programs, from volunteering to educate underserved elementary students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through our Starbase programs and guiding young kids through the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe programs.
Our commissaries play a role as they distribute water to hurricane victims. In all, our service members are making an impact in communities across the country and creating positive feelings about the value of the military, and while this does not necessarily translate into a desire to serve, positive feelings are the new ponds across this nation that are waiting to be seeded — that is the second step.
As Secretary Carter revealed, DoD is getting back in the business of advertising the value and importance of service to nation. We are reaching out to moms, dads and school counselors to educate our youth on the important roles that the military plays on and off the battlefield. And, perhaps most importantly, we are removing the barriers to and creating opportunities for service. Today, we are opening all positions to women, allowing LGBT service members to serve openly and creating a retirement system that allows a one-tour service member to walk away with a portable retirement package similar to a 401K. We are allowing service members to move in and out of the military and commercial business in order to bring new experience and life skills to an evolving force. But there is more to do to bridge the demographic and geographic challenges that we face, and this is not a short term prospect — but it is vital to making our military a mirror of the society we serve.
Finally, once we have found and seeded the ponds of diversity that are the fabric of American society, we can take the third step. In order to fish the ponds, we need a top-notch recruiting force to meet our potential recruits in the places they actually live. That means getting out of the storefront recruiting stations and getting into the community. It means getting online and chatting with our technologically savvy audience. And it means demonstrating that we are a diverse force of single and married warriors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and environmentalists … service members that are a team meeting the greater calling of service to our nation.
Todd A. Weiler is the assistant secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.