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Is service culture the cure for the military recruiting crisis?

Over the last year there has been much commentary about the projected failure of military recruiting goals. Is there a cure?
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military recuiter at a school classroom during military recruiting crisis period.
Cmdr. Michael R. Yohnke, commanding officer of Navy Recruiting District Philadelphia, speaks with Navy Junior ROTC students at Christiana High School during a school visit. (U.S. Navy photo)

Over the last year there has been much commentary about the projected failure of military recruiting goals, save the Space Force and the Marine Corps. The Space Force is an outlier whose circumstances don’t relate to the dilemma faced by the other services. The Space Force has the advantages of being small, new, and on the cutting edge of technology. The novelty hasn’t yet worn off. Time will tell if they, too, face similar challenges. So, Space Force, you don’t count. (No disrespect, please don’t shoot me with your lasers!)

So why does the Corps seem to be on track to make mission? Before providing an answer let me first concede that my opinion lacks rigorous analysis comprised of statistics, surveys, and demographic data. I do, however, have 25 years of service as an enlisted Marine in a period that spans both combat and peacetime. Though an infantryman by trade, I served a tour as a recruiter and an enlisted assignments monitor (human resources, if you will). As such, I directly served in the recruitment and retention of military personnel.

The bottom line, the reason why Marines will continue to meet recruiting and retention goals is service culture. I propose the other services need to do likewise, though they first might need to reorient their service culture, primarily by going back to their roots.

Before one thinks my aim is to bash or condescend, let me be clear: I have the utmost respect for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. I have relatives in the Air Force who are much smarter than me. I am a proud Army Dad and will fight anyone who talks trash about the Army. Though, as a lightweight, barely trained greenbelt, I will likely lose the fight. It’s a matter of principle. Besides, my son is a medic and obligated to patch me up. (Shoutout to Specialist Walker of the 10th Mountain Division, love you, son!)

So why do I assert with confidence service culture is the key? Let’s start with the Marines. The Marine Corps basically hasn’t changed. (Tankers and Scout Snipers disagree, but I am not talking about adapting to the operating environment.) Marines attract those looking to be challenged, to be elite. We place tremendous emphasis on the title Marine and the legacy of Marines who went before us. History matters. Just take a look at a photograph of Dan Daley and a Marine who graduated from Parris Island last week- their Dress Blues are nearly identical. Marines take pride in simple things like boot camp being longer and running farther on a fitness test than the other services. It sounds trite but sets a foundation deep into the individual and the collective, “We can go farther and endure more.” When we go to combat this deep-seated belief is a tremendous asset in winning battles.

marine pose during military recruiting crisis period.
U.S. Marine Corps recruiters with Recruiting Station Sacramento pose for a photo in Sacramento, Calif. on Sept. 29, 2023. Recruiters are responsible for seeking out, mentoring and shaping the future of the Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Seaira Moore)

Though the slogans change a bit, the theme of the Marines remains the same. 

“We are looking for a few good men.” 

“The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” 

“Earn the Title.” 

“First to Fight.” 

“We don’t promise you a rose garden.” 

“If everybody could get in, it wouldn’t be the Marines.”

The Corps advertises being tough, elite, small, and selective. We don’t cater to the individual. An individual must first make the cut, and then prove themselves to meet our standards. They gain the title and embrace the organization’s values and identity. Marines are close-knit because although a very diverse organization (referring to ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds), it is the shared identity and values that bind them to one another. Each has proven themselves. Their differences are interesting, but their sameness is what matters.

The Marine Corps has many shortcomings, but they have this right. It is proven, time-tested, and enduring. Here’s a little unscientific social experiment: I challenge you this week to take note of the number of military stickers you see on vehicles. Though there are fewer Marine veterans compared to Army, Navy, and Air Force; you will see many more Marine Corps stickers than the other services combined. It is all a result of service pride. (If you live in Fayetteville, NC, or Norfolk, VA, you are ineligible to participate in this exercise.)

The services spend a lot of time, money, and research trying to determine what appeals to a given generation. This is fundamentally the wrong approach and reflects a particular, “What do you want? I will find a way to give it to you.” attitude. What stark contrast to the very idea of service, giving of yourself.

One of the best moves the Army made was bringing back the “Pink and Greens.” The amazing uniform evokes a proud heritage highlighted by the Greatest Generation, whose service epitomizes selflessness, courage, and duty. Start there. Likewise, the Navy must never do away with their Dress Blues, Dress Whites, or the Khakis worn by the Chief’s Mess. They might even want to consider bringing back dungarees! And for the love of Davy Jones, give my shipmates some good liberty ports! The adventure and promise of exotic locales will keep a legion of sailors hard at work aboard ship while underway.

Every new generation may have characteristics that distinguish themselves from their predecessors, but what they all have is youth, a measure of naivety, and a need for leadership. The services can provide that leadership by remaining steadfast in their branch’s identity, their service culture, and not adapting to the progressive society at large which seems more fragmented day by day. The military is by far the most effective experience by which barriers between people are broken down. You find yourself serving, working, and living with people whose backgrounds are the complete opposite of your own. The individuals learn about each other’s backgrounds, cultures, and parts of the country; but are unified by the service of their culture. They initially respect one another because each of them has met the standards of their military branch. The bonds of friendship grow from there and erase preconceived barriers preceding their service. When they return to their own communities after the military, they take these values and showcase them as veterans, influencing pockets of our country on a personal level.

Quit appealing to the individual and start emphasizing the service culture. Again, the Army, Navy, and Air Force may need to self-reflect “Who are we?” but it won’t be that hard. Simply look at your history and your mission, then plant the flag. It is a major shift but one that will have a lasting impact.