The Personnel Crisis Has Arrived, Part 5: Forging a Better Future

Over the last few weeks, I’ve attempted to identify the multiple sources of the Army’s personnel crisis, dive into the anticipated impacts of what will happen if nothing changes, and understand the short and long-term effects on the organization. This will be the last column, for now, on the Army’s personnel crisis, and it will focus on some ways to change narratives, structures, incentives/rewards, and develop new ways to appeal to the youth of America so they look at service in the Army as a good option for their future.

One aspect that always gets overlooked is most people who join the Army only stay for their initial enlistment. Because of this fact, there has to be an acceptance from the start that there are very few people who look at service within the Army as a career, rather, it’s an opportunity for personal betterment. Many people join the Army because it’s a way out of their hometown, it allows them to travel, or there is a wanderlust/adventure itch that needs to be scratched. So when it comes to narratives, and the marketing that supports those narratives, there has been a grandiose failure of imagination over the last 20 years from the Army and the advertising/marketing companies who have been awarded immense sums of money to attract people to the Army. The citizenry of the nation has had to suffer from such duds as “The Army of One” marketing campaign, with its narrative of individuality within a team focus. This was attacked immediately and pulled off the shelves after a short period of time. Recently, there have been a series of ads that try and appeal to the youth via their upbringing and non-traditional childhoods. It’s novel, it’s even daring, but it’s a flop. I’m not going to link to those videos, they are easily found on YouTube. The last video I saw, just a few weeks ago, may have been the worst. It showed a bunch of soldiers, junior enlisted personnel, standing around a pool table, talking a very lame version of smack between one another. The message seemed to be, “The Army is just like home when you are with your friends shooting the breeze and hanging out, just don’t look too closely at our uniforms.” And that’s a real problem because making the Army seem more like home is exactly what the Army does not need now, or at any time.

The dislocation a soldier feels when they go through Basic Training is deliberate and purposeful. Trying to craft a narrative that being a soldier is just like being a civilian is not helpful to the individual or the service. There are lots of reasons why Basic Training is designed to transform a civilian into a soldier, and yet the latest ad campaign is completely contradictory to that end.

When it comes to crafting appealing narratives about the nature of Army service and life in late 2022, there needs to be some really innovative and novel thought put into the cauldron. In an early column, I highlighted the fact that the GEN Z/Millennial generational cohorts are not motivated by money, can get college benefits elsewhere for less personal dislocation and discomfort, and want to stay close to family and friends. That’s a good starting point to start looking at changing the entire recruiting enterprise.

Changing structures associated with recruiting is probably the easiest aspect of this challenge. First and foremost, the Army leadership has to scrap MHS Genesis as a mechanism for diving into adolescent and youth medical and pharmacy records. One reader pointed out that this is necessary because the DoD will save money in the long term by just disqualifying them immediately. Well, that’s true, but it is also irrelevant, as the old saw goes. I cannot say this strongly enough: THERE IS NO MASSIVE INEXHAUSTABLE POOL OF WILLING PERSONNEL LINING TO JOIN THE US MILITARY RIGHT NOW OR FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE. Ok, I feel better now that’s off the medulla oblongata. Tied to the MHS Genesis debacle is the gigantic list of medical conditions and medications that will preclude an individual from joining the Army or any military service. A real reformation is needed here, because that tired line of “Only 23/25/27/30 % of American youth are eligible to join” is largely due to a slew of medical conditions that were either temporary during youth, or have been treated successfully and not returned. All of this is a self-inflicted wound, and it’s all driven by the rampant credentialism and desire to lower personnel costs. Two easy fixes are to build a lot more leeway into medical entry standards around childhood asthma, mental health, and AD/HD conditions experienced during adolescence or teenage years. The fact is that doctors in this country tend to go for the prescription pad early when dealing with mental health and AD/HD conditions. There’s nothing the Army can do about that, it’s not like the Chief of Staff can go onto the Today Show and ask the nation’s doctors to stop prescribing medications. Since that’s off the table, adding a great deal more leeway into these conditions, and a lot of others should be examined, reviewed, reformed, and enacted with some real pace. Finally, the COVID-19 vaccination refusals should be seriously re-examined, and some sort of compromise needs to occur between the refusniks and the DoD. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve cannot simply lose up to 60,000 personnel over this issue, it is not just a threat to those organizations, it is a real threat to the depth, stability, and safety of the nation.

If nothing else, please watch this video, with the legendary COL Dandridge “Mike” Malone narrating what it means to be a soldier. Where is this kind of thinking today?

During the dismal days of the mid-1970s, the US Army was facing another personnel crisis, probably worse than the one they face today. But the Army leadership at the time recognized they were in serious trouble, and actually created some new structures with some really bright and dedicated people to figure out the Army could attract young folks to join the newly minted Volunteer Army. One officer, COL Dandridge “Mike” Malone, a decorated infantry battalion commander in Vietnam, took a real interest in personnel, and how the Army’s systems needed to be changed. He wrote a lot, and this collection of his writings called, “The Trailwatcher” was hugely influential on me and a lot of other people. On the first page, the introduction, written by “An Admirer of the Trailwatcher” stated, “First…is to provide the Army with a reference to that represents a potential foundation of thought for the Army’s future generations.” Malone was a part of Task Force Delta, a little-known but hugely influential team of people who were able, over time, to assist with bringing the Volunteer Army into a space where it became attractive to America’s youth over time. There is very little written about Task Force Delta (not to be confused with Delta Force), but I would steer you towards Dr. Jon Czarnecki, who has some writings available on the web but were not for publication, which is why I am not linking them.

The Army needs to re-create Task Force Delta, which lasted for a few years, and understand that it is going to take time to re-invent itself. If there is ONE THING, and one thing only the Army should do, is to find some of the real divergent thinkers in and out of uniform, get them researching and writing, and leave them alone until they come out of the dusty and musty intellectual caverns. By the way, the legendary “Be All You Can Be” marketing campaign was heavily influenced by the work Malone and the Task Force did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are no quick fixes here, I am afraid, as it took years for the Army to get into this mess, and it will take years to get out of this mess.

Out of the darkness came a lot of new narratives due to the work that Task Force Delta completed. The aforementioned marketing campaign was one, but a real shift in organizational culture occurred from 1978 through the end of the 1980s. The Army grew in size, but it grew, more importantly, becoming more competent, having better stewardship, and in time, the American people found it to be more respectable. These are some of the problems associated with how people perceive the Army today, but those are hard truths to accept, especially if you are in uniform. As this Reason.com article states, “According to the Pew Research Center’s latest poll, only a quarter of Americans have a great deal of confidence that the military actually acts in the public’s best interest, a drop of 14 points since November 2020.”Accepting the fact that the Army faces real problems in perception and trust amongst the American citizenry is the first step to wellness, but when will it actually happen? When will the introspection and self-reflection begin?

The parallels between the 1970s and today are stunning in many aspects for the Army. The loss of trust in the institution, the issue with changing incentives (one of the major incentives which greatly helped the Army was Congress passing huge pay raises in 1981 and 1982, resulting in an overall increase of pay of 26% in two years), and inability to connect with the youth of today all have been seen before. Of course, there are a number of changes that have emerged since the 1970s within our society. The Army needs to get senior leaders, from the E-8/E-9 levels in the NCO Corps, and the O-6/0-10 levels in the Officer Corps, in front of the 15–18 year old demographic and their families. Mom and Dad have a huge say in whether Johnny or Jenny join the Army, and you better understand what their concerns are and what they think of the Army. The social media emergence has made traditional recruiting sessile and dormant, so the Army better understand how to get into the Instagram/TikTok/Facebook/Reddit space, and showing canned videos isn’t going to work. I’d wager you need full-time recruiters having a presence on these platforms, but that might not be enough.

So how does all of this get fixed? Tinkering around the edges with contract length, bonus money and the like isn’t going to work. One idea, but this only works regionally, is to guarantee new recruits their choice of first duty station. The ability to get home within a few hour's drive is likely to be a good option for those who want to retain close ties with family and friends. Unfortunately, the multiple rounds of Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC for the acronym geeks) have left the Army with the majority of its bases in the South, a few in the Mountain West and West Coast, and one in the Northeast, on the Canadian border. This reinforces the current recruiting model, which relies heavily on the Golden Triangle in the southern part of the country but is of decreasing reliability. It’s a small start, but something to examine for feasibility. In a perfect world, the Army would be allowed to reverse the massive centralization of basing, and go to a regional approach, and looking at how FEMA is divided into regions would be a good start. Put a Division HQ and all the subordinate units into that region, and start the engines on recruiting. It won’t happen, as Congress is too vested in the mega-bases like Bragg, Hood, Bliss, and Lewis to allow for de-centralization, but it should. Vested interests, indeed.

Micro-marketing should be examined deeply, and put into place once the new Task Force Delta delivers its findings. Having a broad, singular message may have worked 40 years ago, but due to the atomization of media due to social media platforms and the Internet, that’s not going to work well anymore. It’s also not going to work well because young folks today see themselves much differently than my generation. That’s where the real focal point lies — get into that space- and I think some of this will get solved. But it can’t be solved by ads and marketing that don’t show what Army life is about, or creates a skewed view of what Army life is about. A few years ago, there was an ad where a bunch of Rangers fast-roped from Blackhawk helicopters into an urban warfare training site. A friend of mine, who is a Military Police officer, said, “That’s all well and good, but where’s the ad that shows how attractive the MP Corps is, or the Transportation Corps, or the Signal Corps might be?” It was an excellent point and showed the limitations of recent Army marketing quite well. The future gunslingers, cannoneers, and tankers are likely drawn by the appeal of adventure and the smell of cordite, that’s going to largely be a self-selecting crew. The Army is so large and full of different career fields, that it faces a lot of hurdles in making some jobs appealing, but when it spends $157 million a year in marketing alone, they have some flexibility. I’d throw some coin towards a blend of adventure, calling, job skills training, fun, and how people from your hometown have done within the Army.

The Army also has to fill the divide between the recruiters and the rest of the Army. If you are in uniform today, you should be available to talk to a potential recruit, regardless of rank, location, or job. I’d hold company and battalion commanders responsible for retention as well, which is what occurs in the Army National Guard. Guard officers are responsible for recruiting and retention when in command, even though there are separate recruiters assisting in the mission. The Active Army has to get into that mindset, especially with retention. Yes, this might mean that the Army loses a lot of personnel, and maybe a number of commanders who have terrible retention don’t get to progress in the Army, but keeping people is as important as getting them in the first place.

One last idea came to mind, which is to copy what the corporate world is doing in some respects. If the Army can create a public-private continuum of service, it might be able to compete against corporations that do the same by guaranteeing a job and college degree, and then entry into the management levels after graduating from college. As an example, the Army could have a partnership with a large cable company, and as an attractor, tell the potential recruit that within a four-year contract, the Army will train them, give them college benefits or a direct job with a civilian company once they complete the term of service successfully. This could benefit the Army, the soldier, and the company with educated, skilled, and experienced personnel. Of course, there are some limitations here, as the Army mortarman, sapper, or Patriot crew member won’t have a civilian job that is comparable, but it’s worth a shot researching how this could work over time. The Army does this with the ROTC “Green to Gold” program, but it’s an extension outside the Army-College-Army paradigm.

As I finish up this series for the moment, I ask the readers to offer their own good ideas in the comments sections of this article. Surprisingly, the last couple of columns has reached a wide audience, including some senior leaders within the Army. I’ll be back writing soon on different topics, but if there are major changes or problems emerging within the personnel and recruiting worlds, I’ll write them up here when needed.

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