Know Your Military

DOD Official Cites Widening Military-Civilian Gap

May 16, 2019 | BY Jim Garamone

The Defense Department wants to bridge the widening military-civilian gap, the Pentagon's top personnel official told the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.


In prepared remarks, Anthony M. Kurta — performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness — said DOD's ability to sustain the all-volunteer force is predicated on meeting annual recruiting goals, regardless of the recruiting environment.

"Today, a widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force," he said. "This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve. It threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our advantage over any near-peer competitor."

Sailors stand in formation.
Formal Formation
Graduating sailors stand in formation at Midway Ceremonial Drill Hall during a pass-in-review graduation ceremony at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., March 29, 2019. More than 35,000 recruits train annually at the Navy's only boot camp.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Spencer Fling
VIRIN: 190329-N-PL946-1147


Kurta said the divide has been exacerbated by a shrinking military footprint in the United States, a declining veteran population and "uninformed and often misguided" messages from organizations or media on the risks of military service. "Combined, these factors have led to a youth market which is less interested in the military and does not appreciate the social worth or intrinsically-motivating elements of military service," he said.

An aircraft takes off a runway.
Falcon Flight
An F-16C Fighting Falcon jet assigned to the 93rd Fighter Squadron, Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., takes off from the flight line at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, May 7, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Malcolm Mayfield
VIRIN: 190507-F-CQ929-0002


DOD surveys show an increasingly disconnected youth market with declining positive associations about military service.

Kurta noted that only 12% of youth believe they share a lot in common with people in the U.S. military. In 1995, 40% of youth had a parent who had served; and in 2017, that percentage was 15.

Basic knowledge about the military is lacking, with only 27% of youth able to name all five services. A majority of youth believe that those who serve and then separate will have some form of psychological or emotional issues, difficulty readjusting to everyday life, or some form of physical injury, Kurta said.

"Today, when asked how likely it is they will be serving in the military in the next few years, 87% responded 'definitely not' or 'probably not,'" he said. "While the American public has faith in the efficacy of our military, they feel little to no personal connection with it."

A tank fires its gun.
Army Tank
A tank with the Army’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team conducts a live-fire qualification at the Orchard Combat Training Center, Idaho, Feb. 4, 2019.
Photo By: Army 1st Lt. Robert Barney
VIRIN: 190204-Z-TG448-629


Americans overall view the military as important and effective and well-run. They see military leaders as courageous and professional. And Americans believe the military contributes to society. "Yet, this general support has not translated into increased service by youth or support for enlistments by their influencers," Kurta said. "In fact, a significant proportion of our nation believe joining the military is a good choice for someone else."

Youth today have options, thanks to booming American and global economies, and that tends to widen the military-civilian gap, too, Kurta said. "Lower unemployment rates negatively impact military recruiting," he said. "Historically, the economy has a strong impact on the quality of recruits coming into the military. As the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds drops, the percentage of high-quality enlistments generally does, too."

Kurta noted the pool is smaller than it used to be. "Today, only 29% of youth are eligible for military service without requiring some form of standards waiver," he said. "Recruiting high-quality youth with narrowly focused critical skills is more of an imperative today, given the smaller size of our military force and technological advances. This focus on high-quality, critically skilled youth inherently limits the pool of recruits. In fact, only about 2% of the 20.6 million 17- to 21-year-olds in the United States are eligible, propensed to serve, and of high academic quality."

A Marine aims a rifle.
Marine Training
A Marine Corps recruit aims a rifle during basic warrior training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., March 20, 2019. Recruits are challenged to work together to overcome obstacles such as walls and concertina wire.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Daniel O'Sullivan
VIRIN: 190320-M-VO745-004


DOD strives to attract people reflective of America, Kurta said. While the services closely mirror the cross-section of America in regard to race and ethnicity, "we believe additional emphasis on the Asian and Hispanic communities, as well as on female propensity, is warranted," he said. "Additionally, we continue to struggle with geographic diversity. Today 42% of those who join the military come from just six states."

He noted that most ROTC and military academy graduates come from northern states, while the vast majority of the enlisted force comes from southern states. "The department must continue to work to improve the acceptance of military service by all communities as a valued career choice for their sons and daughters," he said. "We must also create opportunities for all young Americans to be able to visualize themselves serving as part of the all-volunteer force in the United States military."