The Personnel Crisis Has Arrived, Part 3: Understanding The Root Causes
This column is going to be longer than most, simply because there are a lot of reasons why the Army is suffering through the most serious personnel crisis since the mid-1970s. Some of these root causes are out of the control of the Army or even the Department of Defense, but there are self-inflicted wounds that need to be addressed and understood as well. The Army has brought a lot of this onto themselves, mainly due to credentialism run amok, but also due to a lack of planning and feedback mechanisms that would have provided better information and more time to assess new programs. Instead, leadership pressure, an obsession with change for change’s sake, and a lack of understanding about the state of America’s youth all led the Army to where it is today: a downward spiral where young men and women simply refuse to volunteer for service. This won’t be an exhaustive list, there are many more reasons why people aren’t joining the Army, and many more why they don’t stay, especially past their first enlistment. Trying to capture them all would take days of research and writing, and I can’t spend the time right now, so I’ve limited it to a few points.
Let’s examine the most controversial and politically charged reason why recruiting is plummeting for the Army, and that’s the charge of “wokeism.” Now, before I go any further, it’s necessary to explain a critical perspective of this topic. It doesn’t matter what you, the reader, think, or what I, the author of this column, think about “being woke” or being “politically correct.” What does matter is that a large number of people in the country think “being woke” in the Army is something tangible and perceivable, and when those parents, relatives, or friends say to a high school junior or senior that they shouldn’t join because they will experience all the wokeism they can handle, all the time, and that’s not good, well, there’s a big strike because the Army and DoD writ large have not developed a decent counter-narrative. This is getting a ton of press, as you can read here and here and here. If that’s not enough, here’s two more articles for your reading leisure. Like some odd cottage industry, it seems an article a day gets published on how woke the Army is, and how bad the effects are upon the Army. Where’s the counter-riposte from the Army Public Affairs Office, or the Chief of Staff of the Army, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, an Army officer? Nothing. Zippo. Silence. Unacceptable or simply incapable of a decent response? Either way, it doesn’t matter because the damage has been done.
Let’s examine a second self-inflicted wound which is causing absolutely immense damage to recruiting efforts, and that is Medical Health System Genesis, or MHS Genesis for short. So what is MHS Genesis, one might ask? One might look at this website and read the short blurb about how it is an electronic medical record system, but that wouldn’t be anywhere close to suffice. This gem of a system was awarded to Leidos Partnership for Defense Health (LPDH for the acronym nerds) in 2015 for a cool 4.3 billion US dollars. By 2019, enough concerns had emerged that the Congressional Research Service wrote a decently long paper about it, and you can read that here. But it still doesn’t broach what the major issue is with the system and how it affects recruiting. In fact, I didn’t even find out about this until March 2022, when a close friend who is an Infantry Brigade Commander in the Army National Guard told me about this system and how it was destroying recruiting. Apparently, this system allows for the retrieval of childhood and adolescent medical AND pharmacy records, and wouldn’t you know, the list of ailments, illnesses and medications precluding people from joining the military is pretty darn long. In fact, it’s so long that if you used any sort of anti-depressant medication, or perhaps had childhood asthma and needed an inhaler for a while, or perhaps your son was diagnosed with ADHD and need Ritalin for bit because the public school experience bored him out of his skull, well guess what, that’s all available now for the recruiters. In addition, the sawbones at your local Military Entry Processing Stations (MEPS for the acronym dorks) can now see all of that in its glory, and they have no compunction about telling a recruit they aren’t shipping out to Fort Benning, Fort Sill or Fort Jackson for basic training. What’s interesting about this is that is has literally received no press, and one has to wander the dark halls of Reddit, or military message boards or chat rooms to get the real deal from recruiters who are nowhere close to meeting their monthly quotas. Have a gander at this sub-Reddit thread to get a better understanding of the problem. Again, this is credentialism run amok, as the disqualification list is really large and it’s not readily available, and besides, the common refrain of “you can get a waiver!” will be heard ad nauseum. I will address some changes that could be easily made with medical issues in the next column.
When it comes to credentialism, the Army is taking the lead on adding more and more credentials. Take the new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT. Ramrodded through the Army in record time and at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, the ACFT has, well, been problematic. The test itself has been altered at least three times, and Congress is now involved again, demanding even stricter standards for those in the combat arms. Initial results for female soldiers were dismal, as 86% failed back in 2019, and the latest publicly available report from Rand stated, “During the test phase, passing rates ranged from 41% to 52% for enlisted women, versus 83% to 92% for men, depending upon component. Pass rates among officers were higher, ranging from 49% to 72% for women, versus 86% to 96% for men. Pass rates are also lower for members of the U.S. Army Reserve, the Army National Guard, and soldiers over 45 years old.” In addition, I believe, but cannot prove at the moment, that older personnel are leaving the service sooner, and the ACFT is a major reason why they are leaving. In effect, the ACFT is creating a brain drain of field grade officers, senior NCOs and mid to senior warrant officers. In fact, the Army knows its new recruits have a major physical fitness problem in general, and copying the Army National Guard, have begun new efforts to “Establish the Future Soldier Preparatory Course (FSPC) pilot program with the objective of better preparing recruits physically and academically to meet accessions standards, investing in those with a desire to serve so they can enlist in the Army without lowering quality. Expand and scale the FSPC based on the pilot’s results.” Who knows how long these pilots will take to establish and gather data, and it is unknown whether they will be successful in the long run in any case.
The Army is also suffering from being involved in a 20 year set of wars with generally poor outcomes to say it kindly. The 18 year old cohort who came of age in 2022, were born into conflict in 2004 and saw 17 years of American military involvement in Afghanistan and 15 years of involvement in Iraq. They have seen countless Wounded Warrior Foundation commercials amongst other veteran support organizations, and that has left them with more questions and doubt than ever. A few years ago, when serving on the Joint Staff, a 16 year old lad in my neighborhood stopped me in my driveway one evening as I returned from work and asked one of the hardest questions I ever had to take as an officer, as he asked, “Mr. Andy, I thought the Army would take care of you if you got hurt, so why are there so many Wounded Warrior commercials on the TV if that’s the case?” I had no answer for him them, and it left me feeling awful, mainly because I didn’t have a good answer and I thought this kid could have made a fine soldier. The withdrawal from Afghanistan didn’t help recruiting efforts at all, as the chaotic evacuation, performed magnificently by our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen on the ground, was a terrible reminder of what happens when a war is lost. Perhaps a wiser foreign policy that is more restrained and less interventionist is required to let time pass and let some wounds heal properly?
The youth of America, described as the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts have interesting outlooks on life and military service in general. Talking with some of the Army National Guard senior recruiting officers a number of years ago brought great insight into what motivates these young men and women. Surprisingly to some, they actually want to serve and be part of something greater than themselves. Money isn’t a major motivator, which takes away from the traditional recruiting bonuses used to get people to sign their enlistment contracts. College benefits are now being offered by dozens of corporations, which further erode the benefits package the military could provide to new recruits. They want to better society, and wish they could do something to help that effort along. But there are a couple of issues they really believe in which hurt military recruiting, and the Army in particular hasn’t adapted their approach to soothe their concerns. Number one, they really don’t like long contracts, as anything over three years is viewed with immense skepticism. Number two, they are tied to their families and friends in very tight ways, and they really don’t want to be forced to travel far from their homes. The Army, in particular, has a massive issue as most recruits come from a small number of states as seen here. Most of these states are in the south as well, with smaller populations compared to the Northeast or West Coast. Trying to convince a young man or woman from Boston to go to Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Lewis, Washington, or Fort Polk, Louisiana is a real challenge, and that’s without mentioning the inevitable deployment to South Korea, Kuwait, or Eastern Europe. Again, the Army has been lagging behind on this issue for years, and between the COVID vaccine refusals and the “wokeism” charges, they cannot rely on their traditional recruiting base for much longer it seems.
The Army has always been the most egalitarian of the services, and I really wish they re-adopt this attitude as quickly as possible. Recent Congressional testimony from the Chief of Staff of the Army shows that the service is becoming even more credentialed, as shown here. With the reduction in all three components of the Army, it’s becoming more and more of an elitest organization, with more members than ever coming from military families. The Army should be a citizen’s Army, drawn from across this great country, from every economic class, ethnic background, racial class and gender. Increasing standards while ignoring major cultural shifts within the youth of the nation cannot continue for much longer, especially in the face of the loss of approximately 100,000 personnel in the next year alone. In the next and last column in this series, I’ll look at ways that the Army can fix the recruiting problem, but it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be fast. As someone who served for the last 26 years in the Army, I truly hope that the best minds can be placed against this problem, because the trends are extremely troubling.