On Memorial Day, as we remember and honor those who gave their lives for our freedoms, we should reflect on the growing chasm between those who serve and the country they protect. Closing this gap is essential for the welfare of our military personnel, the strength of American society, and the security of our nation.
Doing so begins with modernizing the U.S. military’s system for managing and promoting personnel, which has changed little since World War II, even though the nature of the fight, of the fighter and of society has shifted dramatically.
Rapidly evolving 21st century threats require troops with increasingly diverse and specialized skillsets, recruitment from every segment of society and retention of those who decide to serve. Yet the military struggles to recruit and retain from a diverse and skilled talent pool.
Less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the military; only 7 percent of the population has ever served. The Department of Defense estimates that nearly 80 percent of troops are drawn from military families, and that three-quarters of young adults are ineligible for military service because they are poorly educated, have criminal records, or are physically unfit for service.
We must not perpetuate conditions that force our men and women in uniform to choose between their family’s well-being and a military career.
While civilians are empowered to chart career paths that align with their interests and talents, the military maintains an antiquated approach to personnel management. It mandates a strict and regimented career path that generally requires frequent changes of station and assignment, without significant consideration of the service members’ needs and capabilities.
The military personnel system was designed for a different era, when the military was dominated by single men. Today, 15 percent of those serving are women and most service members are married with children.
As fewer citizens are inspired to serve, we risk loosening the civic bonds and shared experience of military service that helps build common ground and national vigor. That is why we have led a Bipartisan Policy Center task force on better aligning military service with modern social dynamics and national needs.
We recommend reforming the Selective Service System to require all young Americans to register and complete a military vocational aptitude test. The all-volunteer force has served this nation well, and we do not advocate for a return to the draft. Rather, an improved Selective Service System including an aptitude test would expose all Americans to the idea of voluntary military service and connect recruiters with those who possess highly sought after cybersecurity or language skills.
Imagine a young high-school graduate with a talent for coding who plans on using student loans to pay for college. She registers for selective service and does well on the military aptitude test, inspiring her to pursue an R.O.T.C. scholarship. Or take a 20-year old with a part-time job who receives a call from the Marine Corps because his Russian language skills are needed. This is how we attract the right skills and talent into our military.
And once skilled service members are recruited, we need to keep them.
When a crisis erupts overseas, our military personnel expect to be called into action. That’s why they sign up. However, all too often, frequent and unpredictable relocation, deployment and training place unique stress on service members and families that is not essential to military readiness. We must not perpetuate conditions that force our men and women in uniform to choose between their family’s well-being and a military career.
The Pentagon must find ways to make non-emergency family disruptions more predictable. This includes the option for longer tours at one location and providing service members with greater influence over the location and timing when a move is necessary.
Childcare is especially difficult for military families who often live far from the support of family and friends and who frequently move before making it to the top of childcare waiting lists. Military spouses are unemployed at much higher rates than the rest of the population due to the difficulty of finding a new job each time the family moves.
The Defense Department must meet these and other military family needs. If it does not, Americans will choose not to serve and current troops will opt to leave. We need Americans to serve and stay.
Former Sen. Howard Baker would observe that, during his time in the Senate, political cooperation was made possible by his generation’s shared experience serving during World War II. As we celebrate those Americans who have served, let us commit ourselves to ensuring a military that honors and works for our military personnel as faithfully as they serve us. Achieving this mission will strengthen America’s military, society and governance.