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The Unseen Obstacles of Military Recruitment

From the vantage point of her position at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Katherine “Kate” Kuzminski has a bird’s eye view of military affairs and its cultural dynamics. As a senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan think tank, Kate has dedicated her career to studying how the U.S. military recruits, manages, and develops its human capital in the service of our nation.

I have to admit that when friend and CNAS Director of Communications Shai Korman recommended I interview Kate, I was torn on whether to talk to her about mental health policies in the military or how the military has altered its recruitment communications in response to COVID-19, since she is clearly an expert in both areas. Since I couldn’t settle for just one, I wound up asking Kate to speak about both topics in a way that I hope effectively weaves them together.

For example, how is the military choosing to communicate with potential recruits from Generation Z, especially in the face of the pandemic and the subsequent rise in mental health issues? What has been the military’s thinking behind expanding versus limiting mental health waivers when it comes to tweaking their recruitment policy?

Kate’s research and analysis have been featured in prestigious outlets across the country. She has also testified before the congressionally mandated National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Previously, as a political scientist at RAND, Kate led research teams examining officer personnel management, reserve component transition issues, senior officer selection and development, military culture, and ground force capability development. Whatever the subject matter, Kate takes an in-depth and multidisciplinary approach to tackling the policy puzzles that affect our national security.

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background, including what led you to the work you do today in military affairs?

Kate: On a personal level, my husband is an active-duty army lieutenant colonel, but my interests in military issues started back in high school. I applied to West Point and started my education there, but had issues with heat exhaustion during basic training. I went on instead to do my undergrad in military history and then to get advanced degrees in security studies.

Today I run the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS where we focus on military personnel issues and veterans/military family policy. We also focus on the broader discussion of civil relations—specifically, the relationship between broader society and the military, as well as the elite level of policymakers who are making decisions and their uniformed counterparts who are charged with enacting those decisions.

Jessica: In a recent article titled Why Has America’s Army Recruitment Plummeted, you discuss the various reasons behind the military’s current recruitment crisis which you believe is mainly due to the fallout from COVID-19. For example, the lockdowns have sharply limited face-to-face recruiting and forced large numbers of students to delay their post-high school plans. How has the military adjusted their communications or PR campaigns as a result?

Kate: There are several different ways that the services are adjusting their communications. One is educating the influencers of potential recruits about the value of military service. I’m not talking about the type of influencers you see on Instagram, but through parents, teachers, coaches, principals, and school counselors.

Something we found in our research at CNAS is that there is a significant number of parents whose children are the first in their family to go to college, the first to reach the middle class. To these parents, success means sending their kids straight to college, so enlistment straight out of high school is a foreign concept. They haven’t even considered the benefits of serving. So, the military is connecting to these communities in order to communicate with both the high schoolers and their parents, just as students are considering the next steps in their lives.

The military is also trying to understand and address what truly motivates military service. Addressing the financial incentives, the military makes sure to include messaging about how you can earn a GI Bill and go to college and have access to the VA loan to buy your first home.

Gen Z in particular is really motivated by having a sense of mission. They want to have multiple experiences over the course of their career and they’ll stay loyal to an employer who can deliver this. So, the military is definitely studying what motivates military service and how they can finetune their messaging to show how the military can help individuals meet their goals.

Jessica: You’re talking about the messaging and the vehicles, but what about the platform? Is the military rethinking how they use social media?

Kate: American youth have grown up with social media. They’re very aware of what feels authentic versus what feels contrived. So, the services have experimented with how they use social media, but it’s challenging when you have a population that is already constantly being marketed to and sold to on these platforms. What resonates with American youth is a more authentic experience. With that in mind, the military is veering away from highly produced campaigns and showing more “day in the life” videos of soldiers.

Since COVID restrictions have relaxed more in the last year, military recruiters are back to face-to-face interactions at high schools and college campuses, which goes a long way. There’s been a general malaise among American youth who had to do their schooling remote for the last few years. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, approximately 1.3 million high school graduates deferred college enrollment. There’s been a pause in making big life choices in general in the last few years, so it’s not just the military that’s been affected.

* If you’re interested in learning more about communications and military recruitment, check out my recent blog piece “3 Quirky PR Ideas to Help Military Recruitment.”

Jessica: You’ve also mentioned in your recent research that the lockdowns are contributing to higher levels of mental illness that are reducing eligibility for military recruitment. Can you go into more detail about this mental health aspect and how the military is responding?

Kate: The reality is that society has shifted how we view mental health issues. Parents are more willing, for example, to take their kids to counseling or get them prescription medications if needed. As a result, we have a lot more documentation of a child’s psychological experience before they turn eighteen.

In the past, medical histories were recorded for the military based on self-reporting. Now, there’s a new system that’s auto-generated through AI called MHS Genesis that pulls in all of your medical records from all the doctors you’ve ever seen. This means the military has an easier time accessing and viewing a candidate’s entire medical history upfront. They can then follow up and request explanations directly from the candidate if needed.

Jessica: Interestingly, back in 2017 before the pandemic, an article in USA Today reported that in response to the challenging goal of recruiting an additional 80,000 recruits, waivers were introduced for mental health—meaning, having a diagnosis on your charts wouldn’t necessarily disqualify you from the military like in the past. Just a few years earlier in 2009, these waivers were banned due to a sharp increase in suicides in the military. What are your thoughts regarding the potential benefits or risks of these waivers?

Kate: The waivers are intended to assess the whole person. There are a range of things that would automatically disqualify someone for military service that have nothing to do with mental health, like poor eyesight. There are people, depending on the role, who receive waivers for poor eyesight. Back in the mid-2000s when we had a surge in Iraq and the military needed to ensure we had enough people serving in the military at that time, the number of waivers went up significantly. So, it’s a bit of a balancing act, depending on the need.

Kate, far right, speaks on a panel with the Association of the United States Army (c. 2022)

Aside from medical and mental health issues, some of the debates that have gone back and forth was not only the rise in suicides, which certainly occurred, but also just a broader rise in behavioral or conduct issues that then took a lot of attention from senior leaders. And we did see that there was a linkage between this increase in waivers, but I don't necessarily think that's tied to the mental health side of things so much as the conduct-related issues.

What I mean by that is that if you had certain misdemeanors on your record, you were allowed to serve in a way that you wouldn’t have been allowed previously back in 2006 through 2008. And we did see that there was a bump in these adverse outcomes with respect to the linkage between suicide rates and mental health waivers.

One of the most interesting things that I think the research community has identified in the past few years is that a lot of incidents of suicide were tied to individuals who had never deployed or who hadn't been engaged in combat. And so that was also something that was really tricky to think through.

There’s this old belief that only people from poorer backgrounds went to serve in the military. It’s actually not true; instead, regarding socio-economic backgrounds, the military is fairly representative of our society today. However, the military may also be attracting people who are looking to get out of a negative situation, whether that’s emotional or physical abuse in the home. So, I do think that there's an area for future research on these adverse childhood experiences and how that might play out in mental health issues that arise during service.

Jessica: It’s interesting you bring up the effects of adverse childhood experiences. In a recent interview I conducted with combat soldier-turned-therapist Dr. Phil Baquie, he said that approximately 60% of the first responders, law enforcement officers, and military service members he administered ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) surveys to scored a significant number of ACEs that would indicate that perhaps a traumatic childhood experience inspired their decision to work in a security-related job as an adult. Unfortunately, these individuals also have a higher likelihood of committing suicide. Is the role of ACEs something that the military has been investigating as well?

Kate: There actually have been a few military medical studies on the prevalence of ACEs within the military. And an interesting finding has to do with the prevalence of these ACEs when we had a national draft in the past versus the volunteer military we have today. Basically, the study showed that when we shifted to a volunteer force in which the people who show up chose to serve, those ACE scores went up.

Back in 2013, the Department of Defense tasked the military services with taking more responsibility for sexual assault cases. As part of this effort, the military made more counselors available to service members. I heard from several different service representation that they were surprised by how many service members were using those counselors, and it had nothing to do with anything that had happened to them in the military.

Instead, a significant number of people were coming forth for treatment for something traumatic that had happened to them as children. And that makes sense with what you said before about the ACE scores. It also makes sense that people who have had these difficult childhoods want to forge a healthier, better path from where they came from, and that includes giving something positive back to society.

* If you’re interested in reading the full interview with Dr. Phil Baquie discussing his view of ACE scores and preventative PTSD therapies, read “A Soldier-Turned-Therapist Stops PTSD in Its Tracks.”

Jessica: Beyond just the military, in the larger security community there has been a struggle to mitigate the stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare. (This includes law enforcement, first responders, and even defense industry professionals.) What practical steps is the military taking to tackle this stigma?

Kate: Something positive that actually came out of COVID was the shift to remote access for mental healthcare, especially among the veteran population. As a result, more veterans were willing to seek out that care. It also enabled the Veterans Affairs Department in several locations to expand the number of healthcare providers. So, this opened up more opportunities within the active duty or those currently serving in the National Guard or the reserve component.

Kate discusses the vaccine mandate’s effect on the military with Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security on Spectrum News (c. 2021)

Remote healthcare lowers the threshold of commitment that’s required of the individual, it makes the access more accessible. You’re not losing time commuting to see a therapist, which could be over an hour’s drive if you’re based in a remote location. You’re not risking someone seeing you walk into a therapist’s office.

There’s this blanket fear that by the mere act of accessing healthcare you’re putting your security clearance at risk, but this is false. From the top leadership level all the way down to unit commanders, it should be clearly communicated that seeking care is actually a net positive for service members—personally and professionally. And they should be clear about the impact. It can admittedly be a little trickier when it comes to certain medications, but for talk therapy it is rare for there to be any impact on a security clearance.

Jessica: What do you believe are some of the positive psychological benefits that soldiers receive from serving in the military? And do you believe the military is effectively communicating these benefits in their recruitment communications?

Kate: The military provides an environment in which resilience becomes built into your everyday life. Serving in the military requires you to be physically fit, to be aware of what is going on in the world—which is not always uplifting, but it at least gives you an awareness of where you fit in. The military also gives you a unit to care about, a community that surrounds you, and a sense of camaraderie. And that climate of control when done properly provides this way of building a life that not only makes someone truly resilient, but makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Do I think the services are communicating those concepts to full effect in their recruitment campaigns? There’s been a bit of a shift away from such messaging around fulfilling your potential to more focus on benefits, like paid vacations and sign-on bonuses. The Army is an exception, with their efforts to bring back the “Be All You Can Be Slogan.”

I think young Americans, especially after the blow and isolation of COVID, are seeking that kind of messaging again. The pandemic ignited a mental health crisis, including raising the levels of anxiety among Gen Z. So I think returning to this messaging of only you can live up to your potential, that you can become part of a bigger mission and a bigger community, is the type of messaging that would really resonate with this group.

Jessica: I wonder if inadvertently former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and David Goggins with their massive social media followings are somehow helping with military recruitment. Because their messaging isn’t just about mental toughness, but about how by joining the services they did more with their lives than they ever could have imagined. (As a side note, I’m not sure how witnessing Hell Week would encourage anyone to become a Navy SEAL.)

Kate: You know, there might be something to it. There’s always been this concept in basic training that they tear you down to build you up.

Jessica: In conclusion, are there any other studies on military affairs currently taking place at CNAS that you want to share?

Kate: The 50th anniversary of the military’s transition to an all-volunteer force is coming up soon on July 1st, 2023. And so at CNAS we’re looking back through the years at the key elements and best practices for how we manage the people who come into the military: through recruitment, how we retain talent, how we manage their career paths, and how we can continue to modernize across the forces.

* To read more about where the U.S. military stands on the 50th anniversary of its transition to an all-volunteer force, check out this recent article from The Washington Post.

We’re also doing a deep dive on the evolving role of women in the military. For example, what are the impacts of parental leave on keeping fighter pilots. It wasn’t something we necessarily thought about in the beginning when the all-volunteer force was established in 1973, but now it’s something we have to wrestle with for retainment purposes.

And lastly, we’re taking a look at the impact of the increase in remote work opportunities in the last couple of years. What are the implications for military spouse employment? How will this ultimately affect the wellbeing of military families?

It’s interesting to see how COVID has affected the mental health of Americans writ large, as well as its effect on the mental health of our service members and their families. But I’m heartened to see how access to mental healthcare has expanded because of the ways the military has chosen to adapt and overcome the challenges during this period. The hope is that we will continue moving forward.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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