Any phenomenon manifesting in a large, complex, multipart institution whose dynamics are downwind of society at large is bound to have not just one cause, but many. Current institutional case in point: the U.S. Armed Forces and the military recruitment crisis

For the two-plus years that the military’s branches (outside of the U.S. Marines) have faced a significant (Navy) to severe (Army) shortage of incoming recruits, analysts have invoked many now familiar arguments for the causes why: economic considerations (low unemployment); societal considerations (Covid; fitness unfitness/obesity epidemic); public misperceptions (“broken veteran” narrative; civil-military divide related to the All-Volunteer Force); historical considerations (twenty continuous years of the Global War on Terror; disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan; overreliance on the military family pipeline); culture war considerations (“wokeness”; overhyped accusations of “right-wing extremism” among those who’ve served; over-recruitment from the South/West “smile”); and finally, generational considerations (not meeting the digitally native Gen Z where it’s at). 

While an over-generalization, these “reasons why” can be more or less classified as marketing problems, and the Pentagon seems to be treating them as such. But what if there are more tangible, and more fundamental reasons, for the crisis tied to the “product” itself—the military as it functions today—and to the less fundamental but no less consequential institutional barriers to join that it inflicts on itself?

In terms of barriers, some keen-eyed observers have begun drawing attention to the military’s recent medical records modernization effort, the Military Health System Genesis (MHS Genesis), which went into effect in March 2022. MHS Genesis is an automated and integrated medical information system that is meant to enable a thorough medical screening of applicants and boost efficiency with the same. While a fantastic concept for those already in the military and those transitioning into the VA health care system (no more having to keep track of physical paper records!), it’s proving a nightmare for potential recruits. Simply put, it requires a person’s full prescription medication history, as National Review’s Luther Ray Abel recently explained. “If someone has had painkillers prescribed by a doctor working at a hospital, more than likely they got surgery. We then need all the documents explaining why a prescription was made.” Moms everywhere know what this means—endless calls and visits with doctors’ offices to try to track down a growing list of paperwork explanations for care prescribed and received, and further documentation of why. The delay this is creating in terms of time has been profound

But the military “doesn’t like a medicated recruit unless he’s a Motrin devotee,” and can pretty much use any prescription (whether actually used or not) as grounds for rejecting the recruit. This hits especially the high-performing, athletic recruits particularly hard—if they’ve participated in competitive sports, they’re likely to have been injured at some or several point(s). And it also hits today’s youth hard with what is increasingly just another aspect of their life—a mental health diagnosis of ADHA or something similar. A 2022 survey found that 42% of Gen Z have a mental health diagnosis; a 2023 report claims that 60% have a “medically diagnosed anxiety condition.” The military has not adjusted to this fact or determined new standards to differentiate between, say, chronic severe depression and psychotic behavior versus middle school ADHD. And, as Abel notes—“White kids are treated for mental health at twice the rate of others, and boys (9.8 percent) were medicated more often than girls (7 percent).” Not surprisingly, the Army is experiencing a sharp decline in white recruits.  

Another institutional barrier that’s worth revisiting: Currently, single parents with a dependent under 18 years old cannot join the Army, for instance. They have to have given up guardianship of any children prior to the duration of at least the first enlistment (two to six years) to be eligible to join. But with 119,186 single parents serving in the U.S. military in 2021, it seems clear that the military has figured out how to work with this population. Furthermore, considering that only around 10% of the Armed Forces are currently even classified as combat arms, especially outside a time of war it seems like there are thousands of military jobs that a single parent with a dependent could qualify for that would not undercut the effectiveness or efficiency of the institution as a whole. And considering that there are roughly 11 million single-parent households currently in the United States, now seems a rational time to reassess this policy barrier.

But then there’s the matter of the military “product” itself. While the American public is increasingly unfamiliar with who and what its military is and does and how, breaking stories about the military’s inability to house service members in safe, sanitary, non-mold-infested barracks and homes can only further already-imbibed prejudices about the military being a last-resort option for desperate individuals at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Or how about its inability to feed a whole installation-worth of junior enlisted for several months? This summer, one of the Army’s largest bases, Fort Cavazos (formerly Hood), Texas, could barely operate two out of a total of ten major dining options, and did not advertise to soldiers which would be open and when. Conditions at this summer’s ROTC Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, might possibly have been even worse, with cadets having to eat sometimes even expired MREs when dining services were suspended. Fort Knox is supposed to be the nation’s “Gold Standard Army Installation.”

This isn’t even to touch on problems of scandal among officers and of morale within each of the military’s service branches. The Navy—or Coast Guard, for that matter—can’t seem to shake itself free from scandals involving its officers, whether with defense contractors (“Fat Leonard” scandal) or otherwise. The Army followed its familiar pattern of behavior when it recently opted merely to slap the wrist of a male lieutenant colonel rather than severely discipline him, for having hid a video recording device in a teen-centric clothing store dressing room in California. Just last year more than a handful of Special Operators at Fort Liberty (Bragg) found themselves under questioning in relation to drug trafficking and even possible sex trafficking of underage girls. In 2022, the Air Force Academy had to expel 22 cadets and put on probation 210 more for cheating and plagiarism. Accounts of “toxic leadership” and the need for reform within the senior officer ranks have been proliferating for close to a decade now. And who among us willingly rushes to join a toxic workplace culture?

None of this presents a novel or unprecedented situation for the U.S. military. It has been here before—most recently, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the Armed Forces struggled and learned its way through the transition from being a conscript military to the All-Volunteer Force. The military emerged stronger and better—and more attractive to a diverse cadre of potential recruits—after undergoing that baptism by fire. But it only did so by its senior leaders being honest with themselves about the true sources of its problems, having the courage to swim upstream against entrenched modes of thinking and behavior, and knowing when and how to adapt to new circumstances. It fixed its product even while it was working on its marketing. Our military can do the same again, today.