Alaska Army National Guard’s newest soldiers are put in the “prone row” position as  drill sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Jason Schlegel walks past  at Camp Carrol on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, on Oct. 25, 2020, during a drill weekend with the Recruit and Sustainment Program.

Alaska Army National Guard’s newest soldiers are put in the “prone row” position as drill sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Jason Schlegel walks past at Camp Carrol on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, on Oct. 25, 2020, during a drill weekend with the Recruit and Sustainment Program. (Seth LaCount/U.S. Army)

"R and R" doesn't just mean rest and relaxation in the military, not when the Pentagon "is facing its most challenging recruitment environment in 50 years."

That's the assessment of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the main federal watchdog, in a report that frames another military R and R - recruitment and retention - as one of the critical "challenges to national security."

Or as Gil Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, put it: "We are facing some headwinds."

GAO's "national security snapshot" is just two pages, far shorter than most audits, but it summarizes other work by the watchdog that revealed three critical shortcomings in the Defense Department's struggles to maintain a fully staffed military. GAO found the Pentagon:

• "has not collected or tracked sufficient data to help support decisions related to its recruitment and retention efforts"

• "does not have sufficient plans, goals, and strategies to guide its recruitment and retention efforts"

• and "is not positioned to fully monitor the effectiveness of its recruitment and retention efforts."

Each of those points reflects numerous open recommendations GAO made in 16 previous reports. They covered topics from tracking cyber personnel data to updating tattoo policies.

But the problem is not uniform among the services.

The most recent Pentagon data indicates the Army, at 69 percent of its stated recruitment goal, and Navy, at 60 percent, have fallen well short of their targets this fiscal year, though February. The Marines and the new Space Force each reached 100 percent, while the Air Force hit a decent 87 percent. Recruiting goals for the services ranged from 23,478 new enlistments for the Army to 172 for the Space Force.

These percentages compare unfavorably to those for fiscal 2019 through 2021, when each of the branches - excluding the Space Force, which was not yet created - hit 100 percent of their targets for recruits.

Reserve and National Guard units generally fell further behind recruiting goals than the active military during the same period: Navy Reserve 67 percent, Air Guard 57 percent, Air Reserve 62 percent, Army Reserve 58 percent and Army Guard 90 percent. Marine Reserve recruiters beat the competition by far, scoring 120 percent.

The fiscal 2019 record was much better. Each Reserve and Guard component achieved or exceeded goals, except the Army and Navy Reserves, which did well at 98 percent and 91 percent, respectively.

Even when active-duty units meet their goals, that could be misleading if reserve and guard units don't.

"If a reserve component did not meet its goal, that is significant as the reserve components deploy with active forces," said Brenda S. Farrell, GAO's defense capabilities and management director, by email. "Reserve components are not used just for backfill. They are working/fighting alongside the active components."

Mario Marquez, the American Legion's national security director, urged the Pentagon to better use veterans in recruitment efforts. "Defense officials are years behind," he said, "in recognizing the influencers who could have made a difference years ago: veterans, educators, community leaders." He lamented the general "lack of knowledge ... regarding the value and benefits" of military service.

Cisneros agrees.

"With a historically low propensity to serve among American youth, it is more important than ever that the Department of Defense and the Military Services are clear about what we offer: training, career mobility, and financial benefits in addition to community, connection, and a common purpose," he said by email. "Recognizing that there is no 'silver bullet' to quickly resolve the current recruiting challenge, the Department is working closely with the Military Services to develop new and creative ways to engage young Americans across all corners of the country, strengthen partnerships with high schools, and elevate our marketing efforts."

In an attempt to reach those young Americans, the Pentagon has used Discord to recruit, but we see how that turned out. A 21-year-old National Guard airman, Jack Teixeira, allegedly used the online platform to post a mother lode of secret documents. Teixeira was arrested in Dighton, Mass., last week and charged with retention and transmission of national defense information and willful retention of classified documents.

Ironically, the "historically low propensity to serve" comes during the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer military. Does that mean the draft should be reinstated?

Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, says no.

"We are better force because we are an all-volunteer force," she said. "Everybody who joins this force wants to be here. They signed up for this. I think there's something really special about that."

Defense didn't provide reenlistment data, but Cisneros said "the military services are seeing record-high levels of retention ... we believe that once people join our ranks and see the great training and opportunities we provide, they will want to stay on the team."

But if folks aren't recruited, they can't be retained.

"The lights should be flashing red for the military's service chiefs," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Aside from insufficient budgets, the lack of manpower is the foremost challenge to the military's readiness, specifically for the Army."

She pointed to Army Recruiting Command data indicating 50 percent of American youth know little or nothing about military service and 71 percent "do not qualify for military service because of obesity, drugs, physical and mental health problems, misconduct, and aptitude."

Two more important points: "79 percent of recruits have a relative who served" and "only 1 percent of the population currently serves; veteran population is declining," which means there are fewer role models.

One issue that is not a problem, despite Republican accusations, is potential recruits being dissuaded by the Biden administration's liberal policies.

During a House Armed Services military subcommittee hearing in March, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said "we are now in danger of losing" the military's "meritocratic principles ... first and foremost to the ever expanding bureaucracy of diversity, equity and inclusion policies, regulations and trainings."

But across the Capitol and the aisle, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shot down that notion in a hearing that same week. Citing an Army survey, Reed said "one issue that did not deter recruits from enlisting in significant numbers was the idea of the military being 'woke.'"

"Let me be clear," he added. "Diversity and inclusion strengthens our military. By every measure, America's military is more lethal and ready than it has ever been. It is also more diverse and inclusive than ever before. This is not a coincidence."

What an extensive survey of young adults shows, "by a wide margin," Reed said, is potential recruits are deterred by "fear of death or injury, worries about PTSD, and separation from friends and family."

Schwegman isn't a recruiter, but she sure sounds like one. She initially learned about the military through her Army sergeant father, a Haitian immigrant. The military paid for his education and that seemed like a good idea to his daughter, who was a Naval Academy senior when terrorists shocked the United States with hijacked airline attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"As a Black woman, I feel like I got to go really far and achieve a lot" in the military, she said. "So, I guess that's why I'm enthusiastic about it."

When she joined, Schwegman said. "I thought I was going to do five years." It's now been two decades.

Schwegman did quit the military for a year, but returned, explaining, "The pay is good. The benefits are good. The job is interesting."

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