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For Memorial Day, let's get real about the recruitment crisis

New report finds that even when kids enlist, the military is not reacting effectively to rash of suicides, sexual assault, and drug abuse.

Analysis | North America

As one retired general is quoted as saying, the "(All-Volunteer Force) is facing its most serious crisis since Nixon created it.”

Since Nixon ended the draft after the disastrous Vietnam war and the Army was in shambles trying to get young men to enlist, this is a damning insight. But it may not be far off the mark, as the Army experienced a shortfall of 25 percent in enlistments in the last fiscal year, and the other forces — Marines, Navy and Air Force — barely made their quotas. By all reports, it's supposed to be worse this year.

Why? Take your pick. Conservative Republicans like Ron DeSantis, an Iraq War veteran, are blaming the "woke" programs that they say detract from readiness and divide the force. Others say American kids are too obese, and fewer qualify. (The numbers bear all of this this out — only 23 percent of recruitment age men and women (17-24 years) — would qualify; much of that is because of weight, medications, marijuana/harder drug use, and tougher mechanisms today to ferret these out in the process).

Still others say the incentives are gone: there are more opportunities for young people to find jobs in the private sector without risking getting their arms and legs blown off in a war. That of course is a big reason: Generation Z saw 20 years of foreign forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, heard all the stories about death, destruction, and systematic lying by the government to perpetuate them, and conclude, "Not for me."

We know that Americans' faith in the military has plummeted in recent years. All the above and more can be part of the mix. But a valuable new Project on Government Oversight (POGO) report by Nick Schwellenbach offers yet another explanation: that the services are falling down on the job when it comes to keeping recruits out of danger — right here at home.

POGO got its hands on a previously private January 2023 internal audit that found that, despite all the money and reported attention on issues plaguing the armed forces, including suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence, and sexual harassment in the ranks, there really hasn't been an organized effort to fix any of it, at all.

Thus, some of the horror stories that have come out of our nation's military bases, many of which have reputations for being nothing better than backwater ghettos for the poor enlisted. Who could forget veteran Seth Harp's heartbreakingRolling Stone reports last September about the rash of sudden deaths at Fort Bragg in North Carolina? He reported that 41 soldiers killed themselves in 2020 and 2021 — no other base had recorded a higher two-year toll. Since mid-2020, 11 soldiers have been charged with murder. Five soldiers were shot to death, one beheaded. Of the total deaths, 14 were drug overdoses, 11 of them from fentanyl.

The POGO report also cited a November 2020 independent review regarding Fort Cavazos (previously Fort Hood) in Texas. It found a “culture towards women in the Enlisted ranks [that] if not addressed proactively creates breeding grounds for sexual assault.” According to POGO, the review was the result of a wave of incidents, including sexual harassment, murder, and suicide on base. This included Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was found bludgeoned to death in April 2021.

Her suspected murderer, who fled and killed himself shortly after he was charged, was a fellow soldier of the same rank and had been accused of having committed unrelated sexual harassment on base. Guillén had reported sexual harassment on base by others, and Army “leaders failed to take appropriate action,” according to an Army investigation.

Yet another Fort Cavazos-based Army specialist, Ana Basaldua, took her own life earlier this year, and her mother has said that she experienced sexual harassment in the weeks before her death.

So what is the military doing about any of this? The audit reported by POGO is disturbing:

The oversight problems behind the paucity of actionable recommendations and action taken in response are manifold. They range from a lack of leadership to lack of follow-up to a mismatch between the Army’s prevention approach and what’s being studied, and more.

A root cause is no one is in charge of overseeing the sprawling portfolio of research, much of which is filed away without reaching key Army decisionmakers, the audit report found. “Current research efforts are often fragmented and not pushed to organizations or leaders who can affect change,” the audit says.

“These conditions primarily occurred because the Army didn’t centralize governance over research of harmful behaviors,” the audit states. An Army group recommended strengthening research oversight in 2010 but the Army failed to act on that recommendation. “When we asked research personnel why this didn’t happen, no one could provide a definite explanation,” the audit states.

The Army doesn’t track all of the research it funds through five different Army organizations. “None of them was fully aware of the others’ planned and ongoing research,” states the audit. “Armywide visibility of research projects and studies on harmful behaviors didn’t exist.”

Translation: the services study all of the problems, some of which are reported in the press by dribs and drabs, others never see the light of day. But what do they do with with the knowledge? File it away, kick it down the road, watch it collect dust. Nothing gets better, not after a decade of "awareness" of persistent rapes, suicides, and domestic violence in the ranks.

Add all this to the news that enlisted families can't afford proper food for their households, or, worse, there is no room on base, and all they can afford is fleabag housing off-base because of inflation and bloated rents in the area, and one has to think, why would I want that? Better yet, parents are asking, why would I encourage my son or daughter to aspire to this?

This is not a call for dismantling the military root and branch but something nearly as radical needs to be done to rebuild a better national defense, beginning with (new) leadership, accountability, and a commitment (not just words and money!) to take care of those who commit to serve. Without that, the All-Volunteer Force is only as good as its recruits, and, given its current trajectory, that will get much worse over time.

Analysis | North America
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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