U.S. Army Soldiers march across Inouye Parade Field for their Initial Entry Training (IET) graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., March 17, 2017.

U.S. Army Soldiers march across Inouye Parade Field for their Initial Entry Training (IET) graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., March 17, 2017. Photo by Patrick A. Albright

Here’s What Concerns the General in Charge of Recruiting America’s Future Army

President Trump’s Army is trying to recruit 80,000 new soldiers, something that hasn’t happened this century without lowering the bar for entry.

America's Army recruiters managed a historic feat in the fiscal year that just ended: finding an extra 6,000 troops to add after the order came down in January. But 2018 will be even tougher for Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow and the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Command.

The service is expanding, thanks to the Obama administration’s decision to recruit an additional 68,500 troops — raising the total, with separation and retirements, from 460,000 to 476,000. That also means Snow and his recruiters must convince some 80,000 young people to enlist this fiscal year.

The post-9/11 Army has done it before — most recently to feed the Afghanistan surge of 2010 — but not without lowering traditional bars for entry. For example, allowing the recruitment of prospects with minor drug offenses, certain medical conditions, criminal records, or too-low scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.

The new task is is much larger than the last, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow of the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Command, in an interview with Defense One. But it’s not the only thing he is determined to see happen in the year ahead.

Here’s a transcript of the discussion, edited for length:

Defense One: Are we on a surge-like course?

Snow: Right now, the guidance from the leadership is very clear. The mission is: going higher on both Regular Army and Army Reserve. Regular Army mission, it’s going from 68,500 to 80,000. In the case of the Army Reserve, it’s going from 14,400 to 15,600. The fact is we’re increasing force levels in Iraq, increasing force levels in Afghanistan. And oh, by the way, we’ve got soldiers deployed in some 70 countries around the world.

But the leadership has said this: You will meet the Department of Defense benchmarks. So we’ve got our work cut out for us in 2018. The Army has not accessed 80,000 new recruits in the last 20 years without violating Department of Defense quality benchmarks.

Defense One: The biggest need?

Snow: Right now, cyber is an area that we’re going with. So I will tell you that is a need. Military intelligence is a need. There’s some of our specialties — we say STEM-focused [that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], or STEM-aligned, if you will — that are just tough.

Defense One: Only three in 10 Americans qualify for the Army?

Snow: That’s held fairly consistent for many years. In a perfect world, would it be nice if that were four in 10 instead? Sure, but I have to tell you, although I like that to change, that’s not what concerns me right now as the guy leading the recruitment effort. The bigger concern for me is: I don’t think the youth of today are being afforded the opportunity to make an informed decision about serving.

Defense One: So what are America’s youth not getting right about the military?

Snow: I want them to understand that there are some pieces of information that are not accurate. So right now, unfortunately, the majority of youth that are aware of the four services think that if they join the Army, they’re likely to be either physically or mentally harmed. When in fact, the reality is that 10 to 15 percent of those that are actively involved in direct or indirect combat. So, you know, I want to counter this notion. By our very nature, our mission is to fight and win our nation’s wars. I don’t ever want to make light of that. But the reality is not everybody that’s coming into the Army is going to get handed an M4 and, you know, find himself in the middle of the desert.

Our mission is to fight and win our nation’s wars. But the reality is not everybody that’s coming into the Army is going to get handed an M4 and, you know, find himself in the middle of the desert.

I get the opportunity to interact with a lot of youth. And generally, I’m impressed. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. I think serving in the Army is something bigger than themselves. I do think we are a force for good. I do think we’re helping protect, you know, and safeguard the American way of life. But I believe it also can give them a comparative advantage competing for jobs when the unemployment is like right now, you know, less than four-and-a-half percent.

Defense One: Why does more than half of the Army come from just seven states — California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, Illinois and North Carolina?

Snow: I think it’s this: It’s a little like you would experience in Afghanistan. People that don’t know you initially are hesitant to be around you. So my experience in Iraq, your experience in Afghanistan — you know there’s a healthy distrust of Americans in Afghanistan, there’s a healthy distrust of Americans until they get to know you. We have the same dynamic in the United States, unfortunately.

Most of our posts, camps and stations happen to be in the southern part of the United States. So you take Fort Bragg, you take California, and you kind of draw a happy face and you touch many of the states that we are talking about. It just so happens, that’s where the vast majority of the American public has the most engagement with the Army. And, oh, by the way, the other services. So to me, it’s no surprise that the more contact you have with somebody in uniform, it’s going to cause you to look at the military differently. And that’s one of the things that we talk about.

So you could make the case that, “Why don’t you weight your efforts in those states?” But the reality is that we want to represent the United States, so we have made a conscious decision to keep recruiters in all 50 states, whether it’s urban or rural, we want to draw from all 50 states.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow at the Army Ten-Miler Expo on October 7, 2017.

Defense One: What would you like to see change in the months ahead?

Snow: All of the states and their associated educational programs, if they’re getting federal dollars, then we must have access to students consistent to colleges that are competing for them to come into post-secondary school. Increasingly, what I’m finding is that although we have access that meets the letter of the law — you know, I can have a recruiter come into a school that could set up a table — it’s not really the access that allows that individual to make an informed decision about the military. So I’d like to see that change.

There are some states that are taking that one where they’re crafting legislation. A good example is New Jersey. They’ve now created a Military Opportunities Day, and they’ve given each of the services an opportunity to come in, put their seniors in a room, and just talk to them about the opportunities to serve in the military. And I’m encouraged. It’s too early to tell: is this really having an impact on recruiting? But what’s encouraging to me is the feedback from my recruiters: a lot more young men and women are asking questions. And that’s what I want them to do. You know, this has got to be a dialogue.

Probably the toughest letter I have written in this command was for a Vietnam veteran that brought his grandson in because his grandson wanted to become a pilot in the Army.

Defense One: Are tattoos the disqualifier they once briefly were?

Snow: Absolutely not, provided it’s above the wrist bone, below the collar. And quite frankly, in those cases where an individual really wants to serve, there is a waiver process.

In fact, probably the toughest letter I have written in this command was for a Vietnam veteran that brought his grandson in because his grandson wanted to become a pilot in the Army. But that particular grandfather criticized the appearance of one of our recruiters that had tattoos. It just so happened that recruiter happened to be one of the best recruiters in that company and battalion. And I thought that this is the case where, you know, my parents told me, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ And I actually wrote that individual a letter — a very pointed letter, had my PAO review it — where I thought that he owed that individual an apology. Because all the information he provided him was accurate. He was a very good recruiter, it’s just that he had tattoos. Well, we are a microcosm of society and more individuals are getting tattoos.

Defense One: Any anticipated impact to dropping the MAVNI program, which allowed noncitizens with in-demand skills (foreign language, for example) to join the military with the promise of being put on a fast track to citizenship?

Snow: Just the very topic, you know MAVNI — Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest — is a topic that it’s been in the news a lot. The numbers have evolved but at one point we had about 1,800. In some cases they made the decision to you know kind of vote with their feet. So the numbers are down a little under 1,600 today. Right now the program is suspended. Until we work our way through the screening of those that we have in the delayed entry pool, we’re not going to assess anymore.

I would tell you is the Army has been clear in terms of being supportive of the program. I mean, by its very definition these are critical specialties. But in some cases, when we were trying to grow the Army [in the months after MAVNI was implemented under the Obama administration in 2009], some felt we got away from them being truly vital to the national interest. It means a critical language capability or so forth. It’s suspended right now and we’re working our way through that. I mean this is the Department of Defense is looking at it. There are some increased screening requirements. And the future of the program is you know I would say it’s a little bit up in the air. But some soldiers are still working their way through the vetting process with the hopes of still being able to serve their country.

Wherever I go, the nice thing is this is not Vietnam. Everybody stops and thanks me for my service. But I gotta tell you, they don’t really know what that service entails. They just don’t know.

Defense One: Has technology made your soldiers’ jobs any easier — or more cluttered?

Snow: The majority of my battalions have formed a Virtual Recruiting Team that gets away from what we call telephone prospecting. Home phones are gone.

I’m pretty impressed by the ability of our recruiters to leverage social media like Facebook and other applications to communicate directly to the age demographic that we’re looking for, you know, 17 to 24. And then engage them in a conversation.

And again, I’ve got almost 1,400 recruiter stations, and this past year I got them an iPhone, and so now they’re up on email. We’re creating applications to actually truly leverage that the way it’s designed. I want them to feel empowered. And the reality is there is a generational component about this. I mean, listen, I’m not even great on email. To me the best form of communication is face to face; however, you know however they do their prospecting, I want them to feel empowered. And some of them have really done a great job, what they’re finding is more individuals are making appointments, okay, and it’s causing them to — it can help them work less. And so anything they can do to work smarter, faster and less, I want them to do that.

Defense One: What’s your view on so-called “influencers,” that is close family members or friends who play a part in someone enlisting?

Snow: We from a marketing perspective, some of the commercials that we have are just to educate those influencers about the Army. I travel all across the country, it’s a real privilege. And I have been afforded the opportunity to see different parts of the country and meet a lot of people. And wherever I go, the nice thing is this is not Vietnam. Everybody stops and thanks me for my service. But I gotta tell you, Ben, they don’t really know what that service entails. They just don’t know. Sometimes I’ll get into a conversation which turns into substantive about that service, but it’s hard to do when you’re walking through an airport.

I want influencers to not write if off. I want educators to not write it off. So we do educator tours across this country. We do them locally, we do them regionally, we do them nationally. I’ve now been doing them long enough that I can honestly tell you know what’s going to happen after you bring a group of educators that may not be supporters — because that’s what we target, we target individuals that say, ‘Yeah, I’d be willing to learn more.’ We bring them to a post-campus station and what happens after a couple days is they realize just how dedicated we are to education in the military, and how dedicated we are to leader development.

And those are the educators who go back to their community and we try and leverage a relationship because they can influence other educators, and they can influence parents, you know, just to say, ‘Listen, take a look at it. I mean, you know, don’t write it off.’

Defense One: What are you watching for in what’s left of 2017?

Snow: I think the two biggest things probably are the increase in recruiters and those bonuses as high as $40,000 for critical skill specialties like cyber and intelligence analysts. I mean, money talks. We’re an all-volunteer force. And to give somebody the chance to pay off their debt, kind of give them a fresh start — we think that’s powerful. So we want to continue to do that.

Depending on the appropriations and you know there’s two different proposals: There’s the HASC [House Armed Services Committee] proposal that supports the full desire of the Army leadership to grow the Army by another 17,000 — all three components. There’s a SASC [Senate Armed Services Committee] proposal that is slightly less than that — only 5,000 for the Regular Army and 500 for the Army Reserve and National Guard. So we’re not sure which of these will ultimately be approved or supported; and then of course you gotta have the appropriations that allow you to have that end strength.

I think the leadership made the right call by missioning the force for the higher number, knowing that it’s always easier to reduce the mission; it’s much tougher as you get started to increase the mission. So I’m optimistic but to be clear: it is going to be a challenging mission, no question about it.