Commission pitches 'Uncle Sam Needs You' campaign as senators seek ways to increase military service eligibility
WASHINGTON — The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed for answers Thursday on how to address what he calls the most important issue surrounding military service: the small percentage of young people who qualify.
Congressional lawmakers had long studied how to expand military service eligibility for Americans who are between 17 and 24 years old, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said during a subcommittee hearing to discuss the findings of a congressionally mandated report about how to boost participation in military, national and public service.
Seventy-one percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the military, as they fail to meet requirements in areas such as physical and mental health, grooming standards, criminal records and education. Recruiters and experts have argued the lack of eligible candidates could pose a threat to personnel readiness because the military relies on a constant stream of new recruits each year.
Each year, about 32 million citizens fall in that age range of 17-24 -- the prime recruiting target for the military. However, those who are interested in serving and who meet the academic, physical, medical, behavioral and legal standards drops to a pool of 450,000 candidates.
The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual policy and spending priorities for the Pentagon, directed a National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to produce a report that identifies ways to improve military recruiting and attract young people to national and public service.
The commission spent the next two years holding listening sessions with various representatives to discuss the issue and develop best practices.
The 11-member commission eventually produced a 255-page report in March 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the congressional hearing on its recommendation.
The report’s most controversial recommendation was women between the ages of 18 and 25 should be eligible for a future draft in the event of a perpetual war. The suggestion was made to ensure all Americans are considered to make the law for mandatory service in the event of a national emergency more equitable.
The Military Selective Service Act of 1917 requires all American men to register for the draft when they turn 18, though no one has been required to serve in more than 40 years.
“Do you have anything that you have done that is going to address the problem that we just don’t have enough kids out there?” Inhofe asked.
Debra Wada, the vice chairwoman of the commission, said one way to solve the issue would be to take up the report’s recommendation to include women in a future draft, pointing to a statistic that women are equally as qualified to serve as men.
“Young women are on average equally likely to qualify for military service as young men — 29.3% of female qualified military applicants versus 29% of male qualified military applicants,” according to the report.
Inhofe said the lack of eligible Americans will remain an issue despite bringing women into the mix, noting the rising threat of Russia and China.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., offered an amendment to the NDAA in 2017 that would have required women to register for the draft, but the proposal was dropped from the bill. Some members argued at the time that the proposal was getting ahead of the mandated review by the commission.
Commissioner Alan Khazei explained Thursday that one of the report’s most significant recommendations is an overhaul or “new call to service,” in which the commission aimed to “link all three branches of service: military, national and public.”
“If we had a new almost like updated ‘Uncle Sam Needs You’ campaign and gave young people the option and educated them about the different choices, and if we linked recruiting efforts, I think more young people would sign up to serve in public service, military service and national service,” Khazei said. “We have a robust recommendation, which is to get to a million young people in national service within ten years.”
Throughout the hearing, the commission’s members detailed new ways to attract young people to serve in the armed forces, such as more incentives, particularly in education, better marketing tactics and increased career flexibility.
A big part of that is educational benefits and introducing young people to the opportunities serving in the military can bring, the commission said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked if the commission would support a proposal that for each year that a person agrees to serve that person will have a year of free education.
Gillibrand also asked whether such an investment could encourage more Americans, particularly those who live in underserved communities “to look at service as a stepping stone for their career.”
“Absolutely. In fact, our recommendation is that the post-service award or the SEA [State Educational Agency] award should be equivalent to one year of in-state at public universities....You can essentially serve your way to higher education,” Khazei said.
The commission also recommended the creation of “a singular ‘one-stop shop’ website and brand to advertise all national service opportunities in the United States,” according to the report.
“We need to do a better job in educating and providing opportunities for young Americans” when they begin to question their future, which the commission found is during middle school, Wada said.
“That’s why we recommend a one-stop shop through a website that would allow people to do that,” she said.
Recruiting practices also take up a chunk of the commission’s report. The section discusses how the military must adapt its recruiting methods to reach potential recruits where they live.
Commission Chairman Joseph Heck said expanding hometown recruiting programs, budgeting for an advertising blitz, and making certain that recruiters are reaching individuals on social media platforms is key.
“If you’re still advertising on TV to a millennial, you are not advertising to that millennial,” he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said as the committee considers these issues in the next NDAA, lawmakers will seek to use the report as a “road map to get to the place you pointed to.”
However, Inhofe did point out one thing that he said he knows for certain.
“I’m realistic enough to know that since I'm the only member of this committee who believes in compulsory service, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said.