PHILADELPHIA -- Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy sits at a table trying not to intimidate a dozen wide-eyed Junior ROTC students from high schools in the Philadelphia area.
The Oct. 30 meeting is part of McCarthy's first trip under the Army's new strategy to solve its recruiting woes -- a plan that involves targeting 22 major cities in an attempt strengthen the service's connection with the American public.
The JROTC students -- most of them from lower-income households -- have been handpicked by their instructors to tell McCarthy what JROTC means to them. But McCarthy is hoping for something more; he's hoping to learn how to connect with young people who could one day become soldiers.
This Philadelphia trip is part of the Army's larger recruiting strategy the service launched in early October after it missed its recruiting goal last year for the first time since 2005, falling roughly 6,500 recruits short. In response, the Army has publicized a plan that leans heavily on recruiting in previously under-canvassed metropolitan centers and taking to social media to connect with young people. At the heart of the new push is concern from top leaders that the Army has failed to connect meaningfully with the very young people it needs to join its ranks.
To Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, the country's youth are less interested in military service because a large portion of Americans have very little connection with the Army and the other branches of the military.
"There is a growing isolation, if you will, from the American people, in a sense that since there aren't as many veterans our there; there aren't as many young men and women with aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers who have served so they have less familiarity with the military, with what it offers, for the opportunities it brings," Esper told an audience at a Nov. 8 speaking event at the American Enterprise Institute. "... It's our challenge to engage the American people, to tell our story, to explain to America's youth what great opportunities the military offers, particularly if you go Army."
There are approximately 314,000 cadets enrolled in JROTC in over 1,700 high schools, led by 4,000 retired Army Instructors. Federal law prevents the U.S. military from using JROTC as a recruiting tool, but the Army, and other services, rely on the program to educate cadets about opportunities that military service holds.
It takes some small talk, some joking and a little charm to draw the cadets into a conversation.
"One of the problems we have is, I am a middle-aged man, so I've got to make sure I understand younger generations. How do we communicate to you all, how do we interact with you all?" McCarthy asked them. "The Army was a great opportunity for me; I am the first person in my family to go to college. The Army was the foundational element of my life ... I wear a suit now, but I am still in the Army.
"It would be interesting for me to know what was it that brought the interest to you, what would be a way for us to communicate to your friends that are not in these programs? Please be candid; I am here to learn."
Slowly, some of the students open up about ROTC enrollment being down at Frankford High School.
"The kids nowadays, they just don't want to do anything; they just want to focus on sports or just not do nothing at all," Cadet Lt. Col. Juvian Lopez, the battalion commander in the Army JROTC program at Frankford. "We will have kids leave because they say, 'it's too boring, or I don't want to join the military or you are too hard on the kids.' It's different excuses for different kids."
Cadet Maj. Stacy Cruz-Rentax, who is second in command of the Army program at Frankford, agreed with Lopez that her fellow students have difficulty embracing the cadet culture.
"Half of the kids just don't want to wear the uniform, even though we tell them that it's once a week; it's not like it's an everyday thing," Cruz-Rentax said.
McCarthy probes a little deeper.
"Are we financing things; are we paying for things like your labs, your gyms?" McCarthy asked. "When I visited Chicago back in the spring, the U.S. Army built a gym there. We helped pay for a lab [where] they can have access to the kinds of tools you will need especially if you want to go on active ... are we doing anything at your high school?"
The students tell McCarthy that away-from-school activities such as the JROTC Cadet Leadership challenge are often what attract young people to the program. The JCLC is typically a four-to-five-day camp in the summer that challenges the leadership, endurance and teamwork skills of cadets with obstacle courses, rappelling, zip lines and other physical activities.
"If we did more trips and more fun activities, we would have more kids join," Lopez said.
New Marching Orders
McCarthy has been a major driver of the Army's ambitions modernization effort to replace its Cold War combat vehicles and aircraft by 2028. Now he will shift his sights to target a portion of Esper's 22-city goal.
"My goal is eight, and I emphasize the word goal," he said. "The first 17 months have been a crucible for me, trying to get modernization moving a lot of time with Congress and industry and a lot of traveling, and now we are taking this on too. We have to; we've got to help TRADOC in this case hit that market as hard as we can."
In addition to talking with cadets, McCarthy met with JROTC Program Advisory Committee, a group of retired Army officers who are now directors of JROTC instruction that help inform Army Cadet Command about challenges the program faces.
The JROTC officials stressed to McCarthy that the future of the program depends on offering cadets career and technical education -- new efforts such as science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM -- to remain relevant to superintendents across America.
"In JROTC, we've got to remain relevant; it can't just be left, right, left; it can't be just marksmanship," Robert Barrow, retired lieutenant colonel and chairman of the advisory committee, told McCarthy. "You need for your Army today highly educated, highly motivated, physically fit [recruits] to join the Army. If they have this background, they know critical thinking skills, they can be creative, they know how to work as a team."
The Army, Barrow argued, should consider increasing its funding of JROTC in support of creating a new STEM program.
In fiscal 2018, Army Cadet Command budgeted $209 million to JROTC for pay instructors, purchase uniforms and pay for activities such as leadership camps.
"There are many programs that the Army sponsors right now that are not linked to JROTC but are STEM programs," Barrow said. "We can do a better job, in my opinion, of linking those efforts and I really think they should come under Cadet Command. ... All the money that is getting spent on these isn't the best way to utilize our dollars."
"Do we have data to support that?" McCarthy asked.
The advisory committee also presented long-term goals of expanding the program into more rural, less populated areas of the country -- an effort that will depend on increased funding from the Army to recruit and hire instructors.
"This job is hard; it is as difficult as anything you can do on active duty," Barrow said, describing his concern that the younger generation doesn't have the desire to take on the challenge of becoming a JROTC instructor after they retire. "How do we address this? Because if we don't have instructors in the seats, the superintendents will shut us down and the impact we have will diminish significantly."
JROTC instructors have more influence on young people than most coaches on young athletes, said Lt. Col. Jerry Cheatom, an Army instructor from the San Antonio Independent School District.
"JROTC is not a job; it's a mission. If you don't have a passion for it you are not going to be successful," he said. "... If I am a coach, if you are on the bench I am not that concerned about you. If you are my star quarterback, I am going to place more emphasis on you. But the JROTC instructor, we don't have that luxury to just cater to our superstars. We cater to all of the students."
McCarthy tells the presenters that he gets the message, but he needs performance data to show how the Army will get a return on the investment.
"How many people are getting scholarships? How many people are joining the Army?" he asks. "We have to do that with every dollar that's in our budget. Then we have to package it; we have to defend it to the office of the Secretary of Defense, the office of Management and Budget and Congress. I appreciate your needs, but I have to understand the value of what we get. ... I want to be the champion of this program."
On the flight back to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, McCarthy reflected on his discussion with the instructors.
"You love these instructors, because they are passionate," he said. "You don't want to discourage anybody, because it takes people with that kind of passion to influence these young men and women, and I mean clearly they are."
McCarthy also had an eye-opening lunch with an assistant superintendent from the Philadelphia school system.
"What she didn't know -- because we aren't doing a good enough job communicating -- is what does it take to get into West Point, what does it take to get an ROTC scholarship, what does it take just to enlist in the Army and get GI Bill funding," McCarthy said. "So I literally walked her through all of that. ... If I could do that with eight different superintendents or deputy superintendents so they can be better informed, be more inclined to be a champion for young men and women to join the Army -- that's a big win for us."
But the best part of the trip was meeting with the young cadets, said McCarthy, who seemed quite pleased that he was able to break through their shyness.
"They laughed and they were candid; I knew if I poked at them and joked with them, there are going to see I am a normal guy," McCarthy said. "If we don't offer like a unique experience -- STEM ... that JCLC leadership camp -- if we don't do those things, it's hard to have a hook to keep a kid interested about what's life like in the Army."
He admired the "kids that grow up in tough socioeconomic demographics and are able weather what they do."
"Every one of those kids works part-time, and all of them have got the goods, as far as I am concerned, to be officers or enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army," McCarthy said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.