As Army Launches Recruiting Drive in Cities, One Recruiter Lays Out the Challenges
Potential recruits aren’t worried about Army emphasis on diversity, despite Republican concerns.
Army Sgt. Mena Ibrahim wasn’t thrilled when he was reassigned from truck-driving to recruiting, a famously challenging assignment.
“I was actually very upset,” Ibrahim said. “Stepping outside of your bubble is extremely stressful.”
But after three years as a recruiter, he has learned to love the job: figuring out what it takes to get young people to sign up for military service in Washington, D.C., a city at the core of an ambitious Army plan to bounce back from a steep recruiting slump.
One thing Ibrahim isn’t seeing: potential recruits who say they’re concerned that the Army is overly liberal or “woke.” (Republican lawmakers say such concerns dampen recruiting; Army leaders say there’s no evidence that’s true.) Instead, Ibrahim said, young people worry about discrimination in the ranks, dying in combat, and committing several years of their lives.
The Army is hoping to recruit 65,000 new soldiers this year, 5,000 over their last year’s goal of 60,000. The service fell short of that goal by 25 percent, but is hoping a new ad campaign, recruitment incentives, and a focus on 15 key cities, including the nation’s capital, will help improve this year’s numbers.
Army leaders have gotten in on the act. “We really need young people to serve,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on Monday, speaking at an enlistment ceremony in Baltimore Monday.
But even Wormuth concedes that the Army is likely to miss this year’s goal as well. “We are doing everything we can to get as close to it as possible, but we are going to fall short,” she told Congress in May.
The top barriers have long been a fear of death, the potential for post-traumatic stress, and distance from friends and family, Army surveys have shown. Other concerns include discrimination, distrust of Army leaders, and a feeling that service meant putting life on hold, according to one Army survey from February 2023.
Concerns about “woke-ism” ranked much lower, at just 5 percent across all geographic markets, the Army’s survey said. Ibrahim said no recruits had expressed concerns that the Army was overly promoting racial or sexual diversity, nor had the issue come up in his unit’s planning sessions.
Ibrahim, who emigrated from Egypt as a 13-year-old with poor English skills, sees difference as an asset to the military. “I believe our strongest weapon is diversity,” he said.
If anything, Ibrahim must work to convince recruits that they won’t be discriminated against. Drawing on his own experience deploying to Afghanistan, he soothes potential recruits by telling them that in the field, “it doesn't matter what the color of their skin is, their worship, preference, their sexual preference.”
Ibrahim must also face down questions from parents that their children will be sent immediately into combat. The questions are particularly sensitive for poorer residents of D.C., who imagine the Army simply wants to use them to fight wars. “It's a whole entire combination of minute little bad images,” Ibrahim said.
Urban environments also bring unique problems, Ibrahim said. D.C.’s recruiting pool consists largely of wealthy individuals who are harder to attract, or poor residents who face challenges qualifying for service.
Ibrahim called out D.C.’s education system; he said it fails to prepare potential recruits to pass Army assessment tests.
The Army as a whole has recognized the problem, and is expanding courses focused on boosting otherwise promising recruits’ test and physical scores.
Washington, D.C.’s legalization of marajuana is also a problem, Ibrahim said. The Army can issue waivers to those who have used the drug in the past, but recruits must battle social influences to stop smoking, Ibrahim said.
“Mom and Dad already smoke, right?” he said, “It's very, very hard to break away from that.”
Still, urban environments offer some advantages, the recruiter said. D.C. constantly has some sort of event going on, allowing him to meet the public at baseball and football games, and even at the annual Cherry Blossom festival.
The biggest incentive to join, though, isn’t hard to figure out, he said: it’s the chance to make money and relieve financial problems. Ibrahim’s experience echoes what Army surveys show. One spring 2022 study showed that 46 percent of respondents polled said that they’d consider joining the Army for financial reasons, and 44 percent said to pay for higher education.
Ibrahim knows the issue well himself.
After entering Rutgers on a full-ride soccer scholarship, he lost his scholarship when he was injured. Faced with high out-of-state tuition and needing money to help his future wife pursue her goals, he chose to join the Army and use their student loan repayment program to pay his tuition.
Army bonuses for signing also help drive referrals, and can attract highly qualified applicants. High tuition for university in particular has helped the Army attract soldiers for its military intelligence speciality, he said.
The money the Army can offer is “huge,” Ibrahim said. “A lot of these kids don’t have anything. It gives them a start.”