Pvt. Jayden Day donned the patch of his new Nebraska Army National Guard unit Friday, Aug. 19, one of 11 freshly minted soldiers to take part in a ceremony signifying he is officially part of the Guard.
Encouraged by his girlfriend’s father as well his aunt and uncle — all National Guard soldiers — Day, 19, of Gretna, enlisted last year to become a motor vehicle mechanic, a career he also is pursuing in civilian life.
Plus, he wanted to serve his country.
“I’ll be doing the same thing, but the Army way,” he said.
The problem for the National Guard, and the military overall, is that there are not nearly enough Pvt. Days out there.
Military recruitment is in freefall — as bad as anything seen since the beginning of the all-volunteer force in 1973, experts say.
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All service branches are feeling the pinch, with only the Space Force (by far the smallest branch) likely to hit recruiting goals for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Senior Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps leaders say they hope to come close, but they likely will have to dip into their pool of delayed entry applicants. That will put them behind as they begin the next recruiting year.
The Army and Army National Guard have been hit hardest. The Army has hit barely half of its recruiting goal of 60,000 new troops and will likely remain short by 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers at the end of the fiscal year, Secretary Christine Wormuth told NBC News last month.
Nationwide, the Army Guard has recruited 57% of its goal of 38,430 through Aug. 16, according to the National Guard Bureau. The figure for the Nebraska Army National Guard is lower still, at 53%.
“This year is markedly different than last year,” said Col. Andrew Bishop, the strength maintenance division chief for the Army National Guard. “We’re entering a new normal.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, warned last month that the shortfall will cause understaffed units with diminished combat strength.
“The first step is to recognize military recruiting for what it is: in crisis,” he said in an article on the conservative think tank’s website. “And, that the crisis is here to stay until America figures out a way to fix it.”
A perfect storm of economic, demographic and medical factors have led to the sudden downturn in recruiting, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic that kept recruiters out of high schools and colleges for much of the past two years.
The tight labor market has driven up wages and benefits in the private sector, making civilian jobs more appealing and easier to get than they were just a few years ago.
“We are in a war for talent,” Wormuth told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. “This is not a one-year challenge. We will not solve this overnight.”
Two decades ago, the 9/11 terrorist attacks motivated millennials to join the military in defense of their country.
But Americans under 25 are too young to remember the horror of Sept. 11, 2001. The threat of Islamist terror is no longer in the front of people’s minds.
“There’s a lower propensity of youth to serve in the armed forces than in the past 20-30 years,” Bishop said.
At the same time, fewer young Americans are fit enough to serve in uniform. Only 23% of young people ages 17 to 24 can qualify without a waiver — for low test scores, or because of medical issues such as obesity, asthma, poor vision or mental health issues.
“The medical standards have really tightened up,” said Col. Dan Benes, the Nebraska Army National Guard’s chief personnel officer.
Mental health is tripping up more Nebraska recruits than in the past, Benes said, in part because so many sought treatment during the dark days of the COVID pandemic. A history of mental health treatment can be disqualifying.
Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the Nebraska National Guard’s adjutant general, said the military sends conflicting signals when it encourages service members to seek mental health treatment but bars new recruits who have done so from serving their country.
“It’s not an argument to accept all comers, but it is an argument to say what message are we really sending,” Bohac said. “We can’t be so stringent that we just automatically exclude.”
Then there’s the issue of the Pentagon’s controversial COVID-19 vaccine mandate. It’s not clear whether the mandate is discouraging recruits from enlisting. But it is affecting those soldiers and airmen already serving. As of last week, 10.7% of Nebraska National Guard troops remained unvaccinated.
Five members of the Nebraska Air National Guard have voluntarily left the service rather than take the vaccine (out of 81 total separations this year) rather than comply with the mandate, Bohac said.
No Army Guard members have so far been separated, but about 100 face dismissal if their requests for religious exemptions are denied.
“Ultimately, they will have to make a choice about becoming vaccinated or not,” Bohac said. “We will give everybody every opportunity to comply with the mandate. If they leave, they will leave with an honorable discharge.”
Despite the potential for more losses due to vaccine refusal, Guard officials see retention of current soldiers and airmen as a relative bright spot. Retention is down, too, but not nearly as dramatically as recruitment. Bohac said the state’s Army and Air National Guard both expect to be at 95% of full strength when the fiscal year ends.
“We have some work to do,” he said. “That last 5% is a hard number to close.”
Another bright spot is the Nebraska Air National Guard, which is on schedule to reach its recruiting goal for the year.
Master Sgt. Kyle Eddy, the Nebraska Air National Guard’s recruiting superintendent, credits the presence of Offutt Air Force Base. He said one-third of the Air National Guard’s recruits are veterans transitioning from the active-duty Air Force.
“Offutt is a huge impact,” Eddy said. “(Airmen) move to Nebraska with the Air Force, they love it, and they want to stay.”
Still, military leaders know they face some rough recruiting years ahead.
All branches are adding bonuses and turbocharging their recruiting and ROTC programs. Restrictions on arm and hand tattoos have been loosened.
Bishop said the National Guard is expanding an advertising campaign introduced last year called “The Next Greatest Generation is Now” to more social media platforms.
The video, set to pulse-pounding music, shows young Guard members handing out food and aiding children after disasters. It acknowledges Generation Z has suffered from “a rogue virus, zero jobs, and stratospheric tuition.” Then it challenges them: “Who do you think is going to fix all this? We will.”
“We know this generation has a desire for service,” Bishop said. “It just may not be military service. They’re doing it in their own areas.”
At the same time, the National Guard is targeting bonuses of up to $20,000 for certain high-demand jobs — including, in Nebraska, truck drivers and infantry soldiers.
Bohac said the Guard is also boosting tuition assistance from 50% to 100%, and expanding a program that guarantees soldiers job interviews with certain private-sector companies.
Now that COVID restrictions have been eased, recruiters can get back into schools to talk directly with future Jayden Days.
“We’ve got two years of rebuilding our face-to-face communications,” Benes said.
The Nebraska National Guard has survived previous recruiting shortfalls. Bohac believes it will do so again.
“We are in a competitive market for talented young people who also have a desire to serve a greater cause,” he said. “I am confident that we can continue to recruit, train and equip the Nebraska National Guard to be ready to serve our state and nation when called upon.”