Trainees with the 197th Infantry Brigade complete the Sand Hill Confidence Course at Fort Benning, Ga., on November 16, 2021.

Trainees with the 197th Infantry Brigade complete the Sand Hill Confidence Course at Fort Benning, Ga., on November 16, 2021. U.S. Army / Patrick A. Albright

US Military: Bad Publicity Is Hurting Recruiting. Lawmakers: Fix Your Problems

As services miss end-strength and accession goals, senators at personnel hearing have some blunt suggestions.

When military leaders testified that “negative publicity” was hurting recruiting, some senators sympathized—but then proceeded to grill the generals and officials about dilapidated housing, sexual assault in the ranks, and other problems that have been in the news.

“Today, only one of 11 eligible individuals in the 17- to 24-year-old range has a propensity to serve. Furthermore, overall public perception of the military is often inaccurate, with negative publicity overshadowing the tangible benefits and positive global impact airmen make every day,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services said Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, also talked about the impact on recruiting of negative depictions of the military, pointing to Pentagon surveys of potential recruits who said they did not want to join because they feared death, injuries, or post-traumatic stress.

“There is no shortage of misleading information related to military service. Members of Congress, the media, and even the military and veteran community, all contribute to these disproportionately negative and often inaccurate portrayals of military service,” Tillis said. “The result of these prevailing narratives is a misinformed American public who do not know much about the military, but what they do know is mostly incorrect.”

The hearing comes as the Army and National Guard end fiscal 2022 short of their end-strength goals, in part because of recruiting difficulties, and expect the problem to continue into in 2023 and 2024.

Navy and Air Force officials told senators they were faring better, with the Air Force meeting its active duty recruiting goals and the Navy meeting its target for active duty enlisted, the largest chunk of its personnel. Both said they were going to fall short in their reserves’ recruitment. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, reduced their recruiting goal because their retention numbers were better this year, said Michael Strobl, the service’s acting deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs.

Military officials asked lawmakers to give them more authority to provide better pay incentives and more targeted online marketing, and to enable recruiters to more easily reach high-schoolers. 

The high school-based Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is one avenue to introduce young Americans to military life. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, pointed to findings of an Army study that students in these programs were more than twice as likely to enlist. But she and other senators noted allegations of sexual abuse by JROTC instructors as well as the broader problem of sexual assault in the military.

“If the military doesn't step up to prevent these kinds of abuses, then it is the military that is endangering our ability to build up our force for the future and for it to have real credibility,” Warren said about the programs. “The military screens these instructors and ultimately it is your reputation on the line…Today we sent letters to the [Department of Defense] and to the Department of Education to try to learn more. And I look forward to learning what steps each of you will be taking to make sure that the military is not responsible for the sexual assault of high school students.”

Miller, the Air Force manpower deputy, said there is “very little oversight” due to the large number of JROTC programs but said her service is looking at adding supervision, both on a regional level with more directors and locally by involving members of the National Guard and Reserve in the program.

Chairwoman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, a prominent critic of the military’s response to sexual assault and harassment in its ranks, said she and Tillis wanted the witnesses to bring policy suggestions to next year’s budget hearings “because I promise you this problem is not going away, and it is a reason why–especially women–are not as interested in joining the armed services.”

The poor condition of Army housing may also be a factor, suggested Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who said he has been waiting for the service to replace older homes at Fort Leonard Wood for years.

“There is no doubt in my mind that service members deserve better than they are getting right now,” said Hawley, who sought to overturn presidential election results in 2020. “What concerns me is the Army doesn't seem to have a plan to replace this aging housing stock. So let me just ask you this, in your opinion, how does the availability or maybe lack of availability of quality military housing for servicemembers and their families affect recruiting and retention?”

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the service’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, responded that they are “committed to investing in our housing” and military families as a whole with employment opportunities and childcare facilities by putting “kind of a whole package on the table to ensure that our facilities and our care and commitment towards family members is first class.”

When asked by Hawley when they would see this “package,” Stitt said they are still working on it and would have to take the question, which did not seem to satisfy the senator.

“I think we're past the point of continuing to kick this down the road. I mean this is a problem now, frankly, at Fort Leonard Wood, it was a problem a decade ago,” he said“I promised those service members that I'd be a royal pain in the you-know-what until something changes, so I'm keeping that commitment. And I'm going to continue it until something changes…but I've heard it continuously that, ‘Well, we'll get to it. We'll get to it. We'll get to it.’ Well, at Fort Leonard Wood, we haven't gotten to it.”