The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since 2001 — nearly 18 years now, and the war in Iraq lasted eight years. But despite the risk involved in participating in combat operations, senior enlisted leaders from across the U.S. military say, young Americans still want to serve.
"People want to come serve in the military," said Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Troy E. Black. "They want to come serve their country. And the risk of it is just part of the deal."
Black has been the sergeant major for manpower and reserve affairs for the Marine Corps. Friday, he'll assume the role of sergeant major of the Marine Corps. He spoke at the Pentagon as part of the Defense Senior Enlisted Leader Council, which includes the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior enlisted leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the National Guard Bureau the combatant commands and the subunified commands.
Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher S. Kepner, senior enlisted advisor to the National Guard Bureau, said National Guard service members — who make up more than half of all uniformed personnel in the U.S. military — are not overly concerned with having to fight. Instead, he said, they're concerned they might not get a chance to.
"The biggest question I get from our young men and women today is not 'Will I have to go downrange?'" Kepner said. "It's 'Deployments are not going to stop, are they, Sergeant Major?'"
Though those who choose to enlist are willing to participate in combat activities, the services do face a challenge getting people in the door. Some of the biggest obstacles are competition with the private sector and a new set of "influencers" who help young Americans make the decision to serve, said Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"About 1% of [the nation] has served," Troxell said. "Who are the influencers of the young men and women now? It's not so much the parents. It's the grandparents, and more and more, it's educators and coaches and people like that. We have to continue to leverage ... in our recruiting areas these people that may be outside the family that are influencers to help us look for the talent we need for this force here."
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell L. Smith said he's found that a lack of military "bloodlines" — or potential recruits with parents who served — hasn't much affected those who step up. Los Angeles, for example, has a scarcity of military personnel, so recruits with military ties are limited. But it still provides plenty of recruits.
"Los Angeles is not just one of our most productive districts," Smith said. "It's the most productive."
Smith said he was talking with some of those recruits, and he asked how many had parents who served. "About 3 out of 15 hands went up," he said. "What it tells me is that when recruits see some sort of opportunity, they are willing to seize it. What we have to do is make them understand the value of service and what it is the military can provide. When they see it, they are moving towards it."