Americans are less connected to the military than ever before and Defense Department leaders — facing what could amount to a recruitment crisis in coming years — have started to take note.
“From our internal data, we have seen that the civilian-military divide is expanding,” said Amber Smith, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for outreach at the Department of Defense. “That ultimately is a threat to the viability and sustainability of the all-volunteer force.”
In the decades since the United States ended the draft following the Vietnam War, the all-volunteer U.S. force has grown into a professional military fed in large part by families whose sons and daughters follow their parents into service.
But even as the United States nears completion of its second decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with threats of new conflicts emerging on the horizon, the number of young adults with parents who served has dropped precipitously in the last two decades from more than 40 percent in 1995 to 15 percent today, Smith said.
The rest of the population, meanwhile, is learning about its military from Hollywood and news stories, leading to what Smith called misperceptions of what military service is about.
Most American adults don’t realize that the military conducts humanitarian missions and that it teaches leadership and responsibility, Smith said Thursday at a panel discussion hosted by Blue Star Families and the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Rather, most people see the military as isolating and disruptive of family life, she said. They perceive military service as “trigger pullers” and front-line combat that often leads to physical, psychological or emotional injury and difficulty transitioning back into society.
“That translates into why would you join the military if you think that you will come out broken in some capacity when you leave?” Smith said.
Those perceptions are often corrected by family members who served, who pass more accurate understanding to a new generation. But with that pool shrinking, the Pentagon is thinking up fresh ways to change the narrative – including a yearlong public relations campaign it will launch next month under the hashtag #KnowMyMil aimed at utilizing the media, Hollywood, sports franchises and military outreach to help ordinary Americans get to know the military, Smith said.
That’s not to say that the waning “warrior caste system” created by military families is the only threat to the viability of the all-volunteer force.
Experts on Thursday’s panel noted the increased operational tempo since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have placed enormous strain on servicemembers and their families, prompting the Pentagon to look for ways to alleviate some of the stresses.
David Chu, an expert from the Institute for Defense Analyses, said the military also needs to be more adaptable, finding ways to better respond to custom needs of servicemembers and their families while still answering the security needs of the nation. It can no longer remain “one size fits all,” he said.
Ongoing wars, back-to-back deployments, lack of adequate childcare and the constant moves, which lead to a 28 percent unemployment rate among military spouses actively seeking work (compared to 3 percent in the general population), are all taking their toll, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families, citing from the organization’s annual military lifestyle survey.
Most servicemembers no longer live on bases, she said, and they feel isolated from their communities. Meanwhile, she said servicemembers who indicated they feel connected to their communities, also respond they are more likely to recommend military service to their children.
“Our civilian neighbors need to know us,” Roth-Douquet said.
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