Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Crofoot still remembers the calls he received as an Army recruiter in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"You got a lot of people who wanted to join to help kill Osama bin Laden or whatever," he said.
" ... a guy that's going to come in with his gun, prepared to go to war."
Crofoot, the command sergeant major for Raleigh Recruiting Battalion in North Carolina, told Military.com that a lot of those fired-up queries came from people who didn't meet existing Army physical or aptitude standards and didn't result in signed contracts. But the surge in interest in military service, by a larger swath of the population, persisted.
While actual enlistment in the armed services saw only a modest and temporary bump, the years following 9/11 saw an increase in average scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test and the number of high school graduates recruited for the Army, according to a 2006 Congressional Budget Office study.
A 2005 Heritage Foundation report found an increase in military recruits from higher-income neighborhoods following the attacks and an increase in overall education levels.
Crofoot said he noticed another trend in his own recruitment work.
"One thing that was remarkable to me ... some of the females that started calling in, knowing that they would be able to go and serve their nation," he said. "Some of the females I met were either in a college plan already or at school and were giving up that to go a different route because it was the right thing to do. I had not seen that in the past."
Now, Crofoot and other recruiters are facing a different challenge. The teens walking into their offices have no memory of the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 12, the first Americans born after Sept. 11, 2001, officially became eligible to enlist. These prospective recruits have never known their nation in peacetime, and have no direct recollection of the surge in patriotic feeling that took hold of the country as footage of the World Trade Center attacks was broadcast over and over.
On top of that, the prospective pool of recruits is cannier and better informed than any previous generation, with unlimited information a finger swipe away at all times. Nearly every recruiter who spoke with Military.com spoke of the challenges that ubiquitous technology poses and the way prospects rely less on their recruiters and more on the internet to compare their options and check facts.
These youth also are in high demand: A booming economy and near-record-low unemployment mean the military branches are struggling to make recruitment quotas and attract prospective recruits away from other opportunities in the private sector. Last year, for the first time since 2005, the Army missed its annual recruiting goal, coming up 6,500 accessions short. The shortfall has prompted organizational soul-searching, with service leaders announcing a slate of new initiatives designed to better align recruiting efforts with the needs and interests of the rising generation.
Among those initiatives: outreach to metropolitan centers historically overlooked in military recruiting efforts and ramped-up use of social media and technology to connect with the recruitable population.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Carpio, 33, commander of the Army recruiting station in Evans, Georgia, said he has learned to tailor his message based on what he observes when a prospect walks in the door. A kid wearing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt, he said, might be easier to sell on the Army than a hipster teen wearing a beanie.
The military uses the term "propensed" to describe how likely someone is to join up and how favorably they view service; one of the strongest indicators of propensity is whether a family member has served. The tendency of military service to be handed down like a legacy through generations may be why the recruiting outlook has not changed more dramatically across nearly two decades of war.
A study completed in 2012 and 2013 by the Pentagon's Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies program found that the vast majority of military recruits had a family member who served. The Air Force had the highest proportion of recruits with military family members, 86 percent, while the Marine Corps had the lowest, 77 percent. Across the services, about one-third of all recruits had a parent who served.
Of the teens he meets who were born after Sept. 11, 2001, Carpio said the ones with military parents are most likely to identify obligation and service to country as top reasons to sign up.
"Not too many kids who were born after 9/11 [and don't have a military background] come in feeling that deep obligation," he said.
Carpio, a tank crewman by training who has deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, said he tries to bring the conversation to what he sees as the main point, regardless of the prospective recruit's background or motivations.
"We're in the business of fighting the nation's wars," he said. "At the end of the day, war is going to be fought somewhere. I'd rather [be] fighting it in [the enemy's] part of the world than in our part of the world. We help defend the Constitution and the right of the people to do what they want."
Army 1st Sgt. Richard Conner was four days into basic training when the twin towers fell. He recalls listening to news coverage of the attacks on his drill sergeant's radio, half thinking in the days that followed that he'd be dispatched to fight in Afghanistan before he had even learned how to march.
In the 17 years since Conner graduated basic, military service members have become more firmly established in the American consciousness as heroes, and reports of troops killed in action or returning from deployments with life-altering war wounds have become a fixture of news coverage.
For some prospective recruits, the fear of what might happen downrange and the strong likelihood of having to deploy pose their own barriers to enlistment.
"What they see on TV about war and soldiers not coming home, it is always a question we get," said Conner, now the first sergeant at Army Recruiting Company Fayetteville, N.C. "They're worried about joining the military, and they know we fight war and there's an inherent risk to that."
Petty Officer 3rd Class Darnell Beller, 33, a recruiter at Navy Recruiting District Los Angeles, said the recruiting experience in his area is much different than in many heavily recruited areas, such as the post he previously held in Houston, Texas. In Inglewood, the urban area he canvasses, young people are not likely to be "propensed" by prior family service, and one of the greatest challenges is qualification. Of 20 or 30 youths he talks to each week, Beller said, only three or four meet the education and physical requirements to serve.
"They don't really understand the history of the military as some other people might understand it," he said.
But, Beller added, they still resonate with authenticity.
"I'm first-generation military, and I've always wanted to do something different in life," he said. "It was a challenge for me to go out and do that."
On the island of Puerto Rico, some young people are finding the military through connections that have little to do with war.
Petty Officer 1st Class Miguel Rivera Perez, 39, a Puerto Rico native who now works as a recruiter, said Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2018 and left 97 percent of homes without power, also called attention to the mission of the U.S. Navy. The hospital ship Comfort spent two months near Puerto Rico treating patients, while sailors on land interacted with locals and offered aid.
"I had this kid that came out and saw me out there [in my uniform] and got really interested," Rivera Perez said. "Every time [people] saw the uniform, it brought hope to the people of Puerto Rico."
Crofoot, the command sergeant major who served as a recruiter in 2001 and continues to recruit today, said he marvels at the fact that young people who have never known peacetime still step forward to swear the oath of enlistment.
"These young men and women are remarkable; they've been at war as a generation longer than any other generation has," he said. "[...] They know a lot more about 9/11 than people would ever believe because we have a media-centric world. They might have been young. It is part of their life, it defines the beginning of their young childhood. … They get it."