Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you, Heidi and Peter, for inviting me, and for your work in organizing this important conference.
It is my privilege to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our All-Volunteer Force with all of you, and to discuss what this significant milestone means for our nation and the world.
After 50 years, the All-Volunteer Force remains the best model for the U.S. military. And that's why we celebrate—it has delivered for us, operationally and societally. It was the right decision for the U.S. military and the nation at the time. And over the last 50 years, in times of conflict and peace, it has continued to be the right decision.
Our force—the finest in the world and made up entirely of volunteers—delivers across the battlespace. It reinforces American ideals of personal liberty and freedom. And it offers Americans who have the desire and ability to serve training, career mobility, and financial benefits in addition to community, connection, and a common purpose.
But as so many of you in the audience have studied or observed, the success and endurance of our All-Volunteer Force was not a foregone conclusion.
I think we can acknowledge that maintaining an all-volunteer force comes with its own set of challenges. Some of these challenges were clear at the outset, the foremost being—without the draft, can we ensure a broad cross-section of American society will serve in the military?
Before ending the draft, the Nixon Administration established the Gates Commission to develop a comprehensive plan for ending conscription and incenting volunteers. The Commission assembled industry and nonprofit leaders, academics and university presidents, policymakers and former defense professionals, and even a Georgetown Law student.
Although the head of the Commission was initially skeptical, in its final report, the Commission unanimously agreed that we could indeed maintain our military strength through volunteers. At the time, there was little opposition in the Department of Defense or in Congress to this conclusion.
Three years later, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird dispatched a press release informing the service secretaries that, "the Armed Forces henceforth will depend exclusively on volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," before succinctly declaring, "Use of the draft has ended."
Since that time, more than 11 million young adults have joined active duty service, and today, more than 1.5 million men and women serve in uniform across the Total Force. And they have proved the highest quality military force in the world.
Yet even with that rich history and the amazing talent bench of our nation, we face today some of the greatest recruiting challenges we've known.
There's no one factor that's driving this dynamic. We've experienced a global pandemic that shut down many schools, creating the least opportunity for recruiter contact in the AVF's history.
The veteran population has gone from 18% of American adults in 1980, to less than 7% in 2022, further reducing most Americans' familiarity with the military. This means fewer Americans have direct ties to a family member, friend, or neighbor who has served. And without those direct ties, it is harder to observe the military way of life up close.
And we have the hottest job market and corresponding lowest unemployment rate in nearly 54 years.
Moreover, the challenges we face in recruiting for the military also seem to be part of a broader drop in public interest among today's youth.
In the past several years, professions like firefighting, nursing, teaching, and applications to prestigious government programs, such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, have all experienced a decline.
A recent Gallup poll even shows that there is a widespread dip in volunteerism that predates the pandemic. And this dip holds true for young adults, even as they report the most interest in community engagement in 50 years.
Public service and volunteerism are not only life-changing activities — they can be life-saving.
So, what's going on? Why the disconnect?
There are likely many causes that go beyond the scope of this gathering, but one of the most striking reasons that young adults say they don't volunteer is highly relevant—it's because no one asked them to.
Today's younger generations have so many choices, so many career options they can pursue. Because a career in public service is a matter of choice among many, it's important to communicate the benefits of public service, especially military service, to our youth.
And the maddeningly ironic reality is that, even as recruiting is hard today, the U.S. military's retention numbers are at outstanding, with every Service exceeding their goals in 2022. Think about that.
The All-Volunteer Force is proving its value proposition to those who choose it. It creates long-term career opportunities for military personnel, while in uniform and thereafter, and in virtually every career field. The responsibility, leadership, and skills developed while in service to our nation reap life-long benefits for individuals, their families, their communities, and society at large.
It is in our national interest to ensure that younger generations consider public service as a career option, and it's also in their interest.
In 1975, the University of Michigan began a continuing study of American youth, which asks high school seniors to weigh what life values are important to them.
You can probably take a few guesses as to what they found most important back then. Finding steady work… being successful in their line of work… being able to give their children better opportunities than they had themselves.... finding purpose… and having strong friendships. These were all at the top of their list. Timeless values. Values that align with a career in public service.
Military service offers not only the pay, educational and health benefits, and opportunity to travel and experience adventure that generations have prized, across the decades, it also reflects the values that have increased in importance to American youth since 1976—those values include making a contribution to society, which has risen in importance by 17 percent) and being a leader in the community, which has risen in importance by 28 percent).
Take for instance one of my colleagues, Frank, an Army major who recently graduated from Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy with a master's degree in policy management.
Frank tells me influential mentors during his young adulthood inspired him to serve. Their pride, their commitment to public and community service and the constant care with which they tended to the community. These attributes resonated strongly with Frank, who wanted to take part in something bigger than himself and to do good in the world. They motivated him to drive to a recruiter's office to learn about becoming an officer and eventually commission as a second lieutenant.
That's the sense of connectedness today's youth also craves and that military service and public service can provide.
For the health of our All-Volunteer Force, and the health of our democracy and civil society, we must create a renewed call to public service. We must make this ask a persistent one, coming from many different directions, and of every generation. And that strong sense of civic duty will not only propel the success of our military force, it will also attract our future civilian leaders and improve the health of our civil-military relations.
The United States has a proud history of healthy civil-military relations. It has seen its challenges, to be sure, but friction is natural, and our system's safeguards have been tested and held.
We are a nation of laws and of checks and balances. Congress, federal statutes and our courts, the professionalism of our armed forces, the will of the people—these are all guardrails to ensure that we, as a nation, maintain civilian control of the armed forces.
But of course we cannot take this health for granted.
That's why Secretary Austin has prioritized promoting healthy civilian-military relations. I have spent a considerable amount of my career at DoD, and from my perspective, the professionalism of our internal Department interactions across civilian and military lines are the best I have seen.
But this isn't just about the Department's internal dynamics. Every citizen has a role to play in ensuring healthy civil-military relations. Like democracy itself, we all bear a responsibility in upholding and tending to it.
It's important, fundamental even, that we continue to develop mutual understanding and trust between civilians and those who serve.
And here's another reason why this maintenance is so important: what we do matters beyond our borders. Because our civil-military relations model demonstrates America's commitment to its founding principles, and serves as a model for militaries around the world.
Several days ago, we marked the one-year anniversary of Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the stark contrast between how we and Russia treat our service members. Russia has resorted to conscription, and is treating its people as cannon fodder. Our Force, on the other hand, is professional, voluntary, well-equipped, and thoughtfully employed. That's also vital to good civil-military relations.
We must continue to build bridges and pathways across the civil-military divide. It's important that we maintain a deep sense of trust and mutual respect, institutionally but also at a human-to-human level, by getting to know service members as individuals and as members of our communities. It's important that we demystify our armed forces.
Most service members don't want to be glorified or singled out for special treatment—but they do want to feel understood and, like Frank, they do want to live a life of service.
And they need to be bolstered by good pay and benefits, education and career opportunities, world-class training, and world-class work environments.
Now, I am hardly the first person to raise these issues. I am not even the first senior DoD official to raise these issues. And I can assure you, at the Defense Department, we are pulling every lever to ensure that we maintain the fiercest and finest force in the world.
But we have to understand the challenge America faces is bigger than just the future of the All-Volunteer Force, as important as that is.
It is a crisis of civics. So it's critical that we foster a widespread commitment to public service. Service is about family and community and collective responsibility. The truth is, we don't need every American to serve in uniform or work in national security. But we cannot afford a future of disconnection—a future without the firefighters, nurses, teachers, public servants, or service members we need to advance the common good.
We should all consider how we're going to leave the world a better place than what we found it. So, that is my charge to you.
I need your help. We must amplify the importance of service and its relationship to the health of our democracy, and I am confident that this renewed call will be answered if it is heard.
As I close, then, I want to note that in addition to the 50thanniversary of the All-Volunteer Force, as I know you all know, this year we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the racial integration of the armed services. With it came the promise of an integrated force and full equality that we could be stronger by drawing on the talents of qualified Americans of every race.
Today, I am proud to help lead a Defense Department that continues to expand opportunity to qualified Americans regardless of race or gender or identity—reaching from sea to shining sea. We are proud of the steps we've taken to welcome all Americans who are qualified and capable of serving.
As this community of scholars knows, to be most effective for our democracy, the U.S. military must reflect the nation that it is called to defend. That idea has always been met with resistance—from 1948 when President Truman signed the executive order to end segregation in the armed forces, to ending Don't Ask Don't Tell, to allowing women to serve in combat roles. Yet we know for a fact that each of these steps has only made our military stronger and more effective. And would anyone seriously question the dominance of the All-Volunteer Force that we have built? I think not.
So, thank you again for this timely event. I look forward to continuing this conversation with Peter over the fireside chat.