Army Staff Sgt. Denard Williams reunites with his family at Fort Stewart, Ga., July 2, 2021, following a nine-month deployment to South Korea.

Army Staff Sgt. Denard Williams reunites with his family at Fort Stewart, Ga., July 2, 2021, following a nine-month deployment to South Korea. U.S. Army / Sgt. 1st Class Jason Hull

Fixing Army Recruiting: Take Care of the Soldiers and their Families

Rather than read the Army’s recent call-to-arms memo, service leaders should focus on the recent Military Family Support Survey.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Mike Campbell is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” He responds, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” The same can be said of the U.S. Army and its failure to maintain readiness as recruiting slumps.

The Army is projecting a 28,000-soldier shortfall next year, which leaders say they only recently identified, although the service began missing recruiting targets in 2018. One consequence: Army leaders are asking to lower 2023 end strength by 13,000 soldiers.

Some say the crisis is due to “woke” policies; others point to restrictions on abortion. As these “culture war” issues will go unresolved in the near term, the Army, Pentagon, and Congress leaders must act to reverse this precipitous decline. Rather than read the Army’s recent call-to-arms memo—more a plea for everyone to try harder rather than a sobering self-assessment which would lead to internal change—Army leaders ought to focus instead on the recent Military Family Support Survey. Released last month, it bluntly states that “enlisted families were significantly less likely to recommend military life.” The reasons appear to be threefold: financial hardships, loneliness caused by military work and culture, and a breakdown of health care. 

While it is true that nobody joins the military to become wealthy, service members are not expected to take an oath of poverty along with their oath of enlistment. The survey’s results are clear: service members across the joint force are under personal-financial stress. More than half of the respondents said saving money is difficult due to insufficient pay, inflation, rising housing costs, and debt. Yet Army leaders are not vociferously advocating for a larger pay raise, even as inflation hits nine percent and a large portion of military families face food insecurity. The Pentagon needs to be calling upon Congress to raise starting salaries to $31,000 per year, the equivalent of $15 per hour, up from just about $25,000 per year, or $12 per hour. These are soldiers who have vowed to give their life for this country; Congress can at least provide a livable wage. Given the wealth inequality issues facing America, the military should enable those who want to serve not just to stay afloat but to save for the future. 

Instead, the Army is shrinking its formations. This hides readiness problems because smaller units can report being 100 percent on-hand when they’re actually 80 percent to 90 percent of the pre-shrunk size—i.e. what the Army really needs. What the service ought to be doing in the face of the recruiting shortfall is eliminating at least three brigades from the force. This will require senior Pentagon leaders to accept operational risk and reduce their demands for Army rotations, but it’s preferable to passing the risks of smaller units onto overworked soldiers. We can no longer afford to have soldiers subsidize the overuse of the Army.

More than half of the survey’s respondents reported moderate or poor health; more than a third of active-duty respondents rated their access to health care as negative or very negative. Yet, the military is still planning to push over 100,000 family members and retirees into an already crowded civilian medical marketplace while shrinking its military treatment facilities. Pushing families and retirees into the civilian medical marketplace using TRICARE’s insurance system is bad for two reasons. First, access to care is likely to not improve because military members are assigned to locations that are disproportionately located in medically underserved areas. Second, for many families and retirees, who are key influencers for potential recruits, the military treatment facility is often their sole point of interaction with the military. Forcing them to get care off-post may sever a key link to the Army, making them less likely to recommend military service to others. The Congress should step in and stop the downsizing of the military medical community.

Amid rising threats to global democracy, the Army needs to reduce the stress on the force that is exacerbated by its personnel shortfall, the Pentagon as a whole needs to reform the enlisted pay table, and Congress needs to stop the downsizing of the military treatment facilities. Doing this will enable the military to address the loneliness, financial instability, and reverse the poor health outcomes of our military service members and their families. 

Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, U.S. Army (ret.), is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and is the former director of program analysis and evaluation for the U.S. Army. 

James Mismash is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute focused on U.S. defense budgeting, resourcing, and military strategy.