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Army Secretary: Recruiters Must Adapt to 'Culture the Way It Is,' 'Surge' Bigger Cities

Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark Esper visits 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team at the urban assault training site on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 1, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Erica B. Earl)

WASHINGTON — Army Secretary Mark Esper said recruiters need to grow the service by adapting to “the culture the way it is” and “trying to attract kids where they are,” such as sending recruitment efforts online and reeling in young people through e-games and the like.

“We are making major reforms to our personnel system, from how we recruit to how we develop and retain our officers, our NCOs and our soldiers,” Esper said today at an AEI forum on the Army’s future. “We fell short of our recruiting mission this year, but as I’ve said, we will not sacrifice quality for quantity. In fact, we have raised standards.”

“Instead, we must adapt our recruiting strategy by getting into bigger cities, for example, across the country, while continuing our efforts in some of our more traditional recruiting areas,” he said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in September that it’s “a sad state of affairs when 71 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old males in this country cannot qualify to enter the United States Army as a private.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said last month that the military services need to think out of the box when it comes to shrinking recruitment, trying to lure “great people that should be serving today, that probably don’t understand what we have to offer.”

The Army fell short of its recruiting goal this year for the first time since 2005. While the Army missed its goal by about 6,500 recruits, the Army National Guard fell short by more than 12,000 recruits and the Army Reserves missed the goal by about 5,000. This comes as the Army is hoping to swell its ranks to half a million solders by 2024.

The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps met their recruitment goals for the year.

Esper said one of the current challenges for recruiters is “a growing isolation, if you will, of the American people from their military in the sense that they don’t — that there aren’t as many, but since there aren’t as many veterans out there, there aren’t as many young men and women growing up with aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers who have served.”

“And so they have less familiarity with the military, with what it offers, the opportunities it brings,” he said. “And the fact is I go out and I speak to soldiers, as I do everywhere I go. I typically ask them, you know, raise your hand if you have a parent or a relative in the service. I think 90, 89 percent of the time, kids are raising their hand. And so that’s a trend that’s very difficult to counter as well.”

At least 75 military veterans, 16 of those freshmen, were elected to Congress on Tuesday. Esper said that “bodes well for the military writ large.”

“Our challenge is to get out there; we just can’t accept things as they are. It’s to get out there and really engage the American public more broadly… to develop a comprehensive approach to recruiting,” he continued. “And it includes a couple dozen things at least, but one of them is to go out to our major cities, and we’ve identified 22 of them where we will go out there and we will surge into a city with recruiters and senior Army officials and commercials and social media and really engage… put a hard push on.”

The Army secretary stressed that it’s the challenge of the service “to engage the American people, to tell our story, to explain to America’s youth what great opportunities do you — the military offers, particularly if you go Army.”

“And what a great experience it is, something you’ll never regret, especially if you go Army,” Esper added.