Are We Really Listening to What Veterans are Saying?

Why is recruitment across all services at an all-time low?

DoD photo, Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released, via Wikimedia Commons
American Soldiers departing Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, on June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol. DoD photo, Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released, via Wikimedia Commons

As Veterans Day approaches, a range of national security issues are coming to the fore. Our veterans are trying to tell us something. Are we listening? Or are we just thanking them for their service, and moving on? One of the big questions they are asking affects us all. What kind of military can we anticipate having next year? In three years? Or even ten years?

Recruitment across all the services is at an all-time low which is creating an ever-growing national security concern. The reasons for this are many: youth disinterest, job market woes, childhood obesity, and teen drug use, among others. But senior leaders are missing one key factor which reflects a tone-deaf state of leader careerism and politics. 

Trust.

According to Gallup, public trust in the military has dropped to an all-time low, and there is a 10 percent reduction with respect to public trust in military officers. Where does this stem from? Apparently, the botched Afghan withdrawal in August 2021 is more impactful than anyone considered possible, even when it comes to military recruiting. 

At least according to a recent article by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Bergen, and published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Do we really need, though, a poll to tell us that today’s and tomorrow’s recruits are paying close attention to the moral injury that was thrust upon 775,000 Afghan War Veterans at a close, interpersonal level?

Well over a year since the last American plane left Afghanistan, most senior officers continue to ignore the wholesale abandonment of our Afghan allies as a persistent problem affecting the active force and veteran population. This tone-deafness continues even though many young people in today’s military have a relative who is serving or served.

Or they know someone personally affected the Afghan withdrawal. Yet while researching my book “Operation Pineapple Express,” I interviewed dozens of veterans, undaunted patriots with years of distinguished military service, who, following the Afghan Collapse, were adamant that their relatives not join the military. 

Now, the recruiting numbers are starting to reflect the impacts of this. One Green Beret veteran claimed that if he had known on September 12, 2001, what he knew now about how the American government would treat their Afghan allies, he never would have walked into his recruiting station to become a Green Beret in the first place.

And he would do whatever he could to keep his son from joining up when the time comes. When 83 percent of Afghan War Veterans feel betrayed, and four-star generals are referring to the abandonment of tens of thousands of Afghan Commandos as the “greatest airlift in U.S. history,” something is seriously off.

As it is when veterans who feel betrayed when their National Mine Reduction Group partners are hunted by the Taliban to “stop acting like victims.” It should not be a great mental leap for senior leaders to clock this trend as a recruiting obstacle. Our youth, particularly those with ties to the military, are watching —and voting with their feet.

While it is a refreshing turn of events for the Marine Corps Commandant to acknowledge the Afghanistan debacle as a major obstacle to recruiting, I still have to wonder what he and other senior leaders are doing about it. As we honor our veterans this November, the answer seems to be not much. 

The truth is, recruiting isn’t just a candidate problem, it’s also a leader problem. Only when our political and military leaders start paying attention to the trust they’ve lost and demonstrate, through action, that they do indeed value the service and sacrifice of our veterans in tough places like Afghanistan, will the future Warriors of this country, once again, step forward.


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