Access to quality housing, health care and child care remain top concerns of military members and their families, the services' top enlisted leaders told Congress on Tuesday. So too does a national narrative about the decision to serve -- an idea that enlisting in the U.S. military is to "place your life on hold" for four years or a waste of talent.
With the services vying for recruits as young Americans show waning interest, they must have the ability to offer better benefits and decent pay rates, according to senior enlisted leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force.
That needs to be joined by a national emphasis placed on the intangibles of service, echoing a March 2020 report by the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service that got buried by the pandemic, the chiefs said.
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"I'd ask this committee, and all Americans, just to say the military, not just the Army, is a great place to serve and it's also a great place to grow," said Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston in remarks to the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.
He was joined by two other top enlisted advisers in calling on Congress to help lead the call to national service.
"You must continue focusing on the factors that influence our recruiting and retention efforts, assessing situations that impact our all-volunteer forces' propensity to serve and build a stronger national call to service," Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea said.
The services are hoping to revive the commission's 164 recommendations detailed in the 2020 report, calling for increased civic education and an emphasis on education with a community services component, as well as additional opportunities to inspire young people to serve, either in the military or in non-uniformed volunteer or paid positions such as in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, conservation, disaster response or something else.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black said the "narrative of service to the military ... is diminished," adding that there needs to be an emphasis on the positive -- "defending the Constitution."
"I'll expand that to the first responder community. ... It's payback that we give our fellow citizens, to our nation," he added.
Black said he jokes about getting a sense of what America thinks about its military by the movies that come out, and the only decent military movie in recent years, in his opinion, was "Top Gun: Maverick," which he called a "flashback to the '80s." That film was made with heavy participation from the U.S. Navy, which gave filmmakers extensive access to an aircraft carrier and other military hardware.
"If we can't attract a deep enough talent pool and increase the propensity to serve in these uniforms, then we will see a challenge to our all-volunteer force," Black warned.
While support for individual service members and veterans remains strong, the armed services have received their share of bad publicity on nearly every cultural touchstone, including mental and physical health, COVID-19, suicide and sexual assault.
The U.S. armed forces were embroiled in two wars in the past 20 years, suffering more than 7,000 casualties and thousands of injuries, including persistent health conditions such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, respiratory illnesses, cancer and other conditions related to military service. Suicides rose steadily among the active-duty forces and veterans from 2001 to 2019, where once the military was seen as a resilient shield against taking one's own life.
The problems of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military made national headlines with increased reports across the services. The 2020 disappearance and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who told her family she was being sexually harassed, brought the Army into the #MeToo movement spotlight.
Last year, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth blamed negative media coverage for the service's recruitment woes.
"For parents and influencers, there are concerns over psychological harm," Wormuth told soldiers during a conference last year, adding that she believes the coverage of those issues is creating a warped perception of the service. "Parents see headlines about suicides and sexual harassment and assault in the military."
The enlisted chiefs in their testimony before Congress didn't blame the media, but rather admitted the military has an image problem. They added that the pool of those interested in serving is shrinking, down to its lowest point in 15 years, 9% among youth, according to a poll cited by Grinston.
And just 23% of Americans ages 17 to 24 meet the requirements to serve, largely due to physical fitness requirements and past legal troubles often tied to illicit substances.
"This is not just an Army problem. It's not just a military problem. If we cannot build an Army able to accomplish the missions I mentioned at the beginning, this is an American problem," Grinston said. "We need a national call to public service."
The panel members said they are looking forward to the results of the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, an effort underway that examines whether service members receive adequate pay and benefits. The review is expected to be complete within the next two years.
But, they added, service members facing financial hardship as a result of inflation or inadequate housing availability can't wait two years. The enlisted leaders' top concerns were housing, health care and child care.
In some places like San Diego, rising costs have made it difficult if not impossible to afford housing near duty stations. In other parts of the country, people are relocating to areas that once had low costs of living, like Nevada, and are driving up prices, especially around Nellis Air Force Base. And at Creech Air Force Base, there is no on-base housing.
"We must provide a safe place, whether it be in the dormitories, government housing, privatized housing, where airmen can come together as communities. Those things absolutely impact retention," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said.
Honea said one of his main concerns is access to health care, especially in areas such as the Pacific Northwest where Navy hospitals have downsized, requiring "service members and families to drive an hour or more to seek military medicine and specialized care."
Lawmakers on the panel said they planned to defend the Department of Defense budget in light of a proposal by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to cap fiscal 2024 discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels.
"We don't yet have the president's budget. I'm hopeful it will include a strong request for military construction funding that addresses many of the quality-of-life issues we will discuss today," Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, said in her opening remarks.
And regarding the service's call to action on national service, Committee Chairman Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said he supports the services but chided them for their own publicity missteps.
"When it comes to sexual harassment ... unfortunately, you are going to make the news, and then you wonder why recruitment is down. Ten years ago, you would say health care is the reason to join the military. Now, we hear that health care is a challenge to our military. The news is going to hit you first, it's going to hit us first. If you think you have a popularity problem, you oughta see ours. ... It's because you are in the news all the time. You gotta come back to being proud," Carter said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct McCarthy's party affiliation.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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