As the Armed Forces continue experiencing difficulties both with recruiting and retention, the 101st Airborne Division Deputy Public Affairs Officer is taking a different approach.
Major Daniel “Danny” Mathews is passionate about storytelling, especially as it relates to soldiers. “When I arrived at the 101st, I was blown away by the things the soldiers were doing on a daily basis even though it seemed routine to them. Showcasing them on social media in a different way was on my radar,” he explained.
Knowing there had been an evolution in how young people were both communicating and receiving information, the 101st Airborne Division saw an opportunity to make big impacts to Army culture.
“If you're going to target that young population for service and sell staying in, you've got to make it appealing to them. I knew a few local veteran influencers near Fort Campbell and decided to reach out to them,” he added.
Erik Bartell was part of 101st himself during his days of service, which included a combat tour in Afghanistan. His following was gained through a love of fitness and continual presence in publications like Men's Health and Muscle and Fitness. You can also find him running the Echelon energy drink brand.
“The military as a whole isn’t speaking the language of the youth they’re trying to recruit. When Danny approached me with this idea, I was all in. Without the Army I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. It’s such an incredible opportunity and I jumped at the chance to share that message,” he told WATM.
Next came a Marine Veteran With A Sign, pun absolutely intended. Though it may seem odd having a devil dog hang around with soldiers, it was Zach Bell’s style of communicating with humor and amassing cult-like following which had Mathews seeking him out.
Initially, Bell said he was somewhat skeptical of Mathews. “I shouldn’t have been worried at all. Danny is so culturally aware of the internet as a whole and the way a mission to recruit has to be worked in this day and age,” he explained. “I've always said that we find the best versions of ourselves, in the service of others and my life has drastically changed because of my time and service. I wanted to take this as a chance to shed a better light on the opportunities and things you're able to do in military service.”
It worked. Within months the following of the 101st had more than tripled to almost 50k followers on Instagram.
“Zach and I are talking to a mainly military demographic with a lot of them being young. Not only do we want to keep coming in creating content showcasing the awesome work and things 101st can do but want to show the soldiers love too,” Bartell said. “Sometimes it’s giving the opportunity to share their story or bringing them energy drinks to break up the day. But no matter what, it’s all fun.”
Bell echoed the sentiment. “It's been really refreshing to see the care and concern that Major Mathews and his entire team have towards the mission and towards supporting the Army's goals in a way that is not facetious, or self serving. They're really just about the mission and about the troops,” he added.
They aren’t done yet.
Bell wants to help create better conversations around serving and pride in the jobs held by those in uniform. “I want to destigmatize it and break it down, making military service more palatable for young people so it's less daunting,” he said. “They don’t have grandiose ideas about policy, they just want to serve their country. My goal is to humanize the whole thing and make it more accessible while also talking to them about what’s available after the leave the military.”
Bartell is excited about bringing his beloved 101st to the forefront while also giving viewers a peek behind the curtain of being a soldier. “I was very lucky in the sense that I got to deploy and lead troops overseas and Afghanistan as a platoon leader. But one of the most special things about being in the 101st was the culture for me. If I can help tell that story while supporting the Army it's a big win,” he shared.
As the team at the 101st Airborne Division continues their mission of bringing in influencers, new ideas and building viable content, Mathews is proud of how far they’ve come and sees even more possibilities in the future.
“People spend a huge amount of their time and life online. If we're not connecting service members to each other, or service members to the organization that they're a part of online as well, there becomes a disconnect. I firmly believe it’s important we bridge the gap,” Mathews said. “We’ve increased our 90 day reach from 97,000 to 2.9 million and engagement has gone from 12,000 to 200,000. I think that the first step that got us into the conversation was finding the right social media influencers who are willing to support and come see what the 101st is all about. We’re just getting started.”
Follow the 101st Airborne Division on Instagram. You can also catch up with Bell by watching his YouTube shenanigans here or Instagram here. If you want to see Bartell’s mostly shirtless fitness tips, tricks and general fun – click here.