Since abolishing the draft in 1973, the United States has relied heavily on its military families to replenish the ranks of its all-volunteer force. Despite the disproportionate toll that recent wars have extracted from this small community, evidence suggests that American defense is still remarkably dependent upon the families that have already sacrificed the most.
Fears of US military service becoming a “family affair” and thereby widening the civil-military divide are nothing new, but the culmination of America’s wars in the Middle East warrants reconsideration of the issue. Strategic competition and integrated deterrence, both concepts that are likely to appear in the next National Defense Strategy, will force the Pentagon to compete more aggressively with the private sector for the human talent their implementation requires. Although the active-duty force downsized by approximately 700,000 troops since the Cold War’s end, competition between the United States and China now elicits comparisons to the US-Soviet rivalry.
America’s ability to bounce back from its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be determined by the health of its military families as much as foreign policy debates on Capitol Hill and strategic buzzwords. The effects of protracted war on the national psyche did not simply evaporate in August when the United States withdrew its remaining forces from Kabul. Taking time to reflect on the status of service members’ families will allow the defense community to approach its reliance on the American military tradition with clear eyes as it shifts its gaze from worldwide counterterrorism to an intensifying rivalry with state competitors.
CRACKS IN THE FOUNDATION?
On average, about one in every three active service members come from a military family. The numbers across all components and the veteran community are even higher. Ninety-seven percent of active, reserve, and veteran respondents to the comprehensive 2015 Annual Military Lifestyle Survey had at least one immediate family member in the military. Half of them had more than one. These data are consistent over time. An October 2021 survey conducted by Bloom and the National Military Family Association found that 65% of teenagers in military families would consider serving.
To put this in perspective, a 2019 Pentagon study indicated that only 13% of young Americans from a similar age demographic (16–24) saw the military as a viable option. Few would be shocked if those national numbers dwindle even further during the interwar period, especially after the inglorious end to America’s experience in Afghanistan. The evidence is rather conclusive that the personal relationships of service members and veterans have by far the most influence on military end strength.
America’s ability to bounce back from its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be determined by the health of its military families as much as foreign policy debates on Capitol Hill and strategic buzzwords.
These findings would not be so alarming if American troops were enthusiastic about the prospect of their kids following in their footsteps — but most are not. A 2017 poll revealed that 60% of the active military would not encourage their children to serve, yet they were likely to recommend service to others. As combat deployments and wartime casualties reached record lows between 2015 and 2017, the number of military parents advocating for their children to serve actually decreased. These indicators deserve more attention.
A mere 5% reduction in matriculation from military families could equate to around 60,000 fewer recruits, or the equivalent of roughly the entire active force assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Meanwhile, in Russia, enthusiasm for military service reached a 22-year high in 2019, with 60% of those surveyed saying “real men” must wear the nation’s uniform. Quite plainly, there needs to be a much more prominent national discussion taking place surrounding these trends.
A COSTLY BUSINESS
As of 2019, a third of America’s 1.3 million active-duty service members were parents to roughly 977,000 children. Of those “military brats,” as they are affectionately called, 96% of them were 18 years of age or younger. Most of these children have known nothing but deployments and prolonged absences of at least one parent.
During the early phases of America’s wars, many US Army units alternated between a year of training at their home station and a year away in a combat zone. This led to the Army Force Generation cycle designed to give troops a 1:2 ratio of time away and time at home. As anyone who served during that era knows, there were gaps between theory and practice.
Escalated operational tempo during the Global War on Terrorism normalized these frequent and extensive absences, which certainly did little to help the 42% of military teens who exhibit signs of emotional duress. In 2010, when many of those teens were much younger, 83% of military families admitted that deployments had a somewhat negative effect on their children, while 30% claimed the effects were mostly negative.
The seemingly insurmountable active-duty suicide problem continues to impact families as well. From 2015 to 2020, active-duty suicides increased by nearly 50% to the highest levels seen since the Pentagon began tracking data comprehensively in 2008. Along with 580 active servicemembers, 202 military family members took their lives in 2019 alone. Half of those family members were veterans. Combat experience and duty position had marginal influence, proving that the problem goes much deeper than war-related trauma.
Perhaps most concerning is that the reserve force and National Guard, who spend far less time deployed or embedded with their units, saw almost no change in their suicide rates during the same period. Not only do these tragedies remove troops from their formations now, but they also erode the stability of military families in general and dissuade highly qualified candidates from military service in the future.
WITHER THE WARRIOR CLASS?
The Pentagon’s various ongoing modernization initiatives will require a wide range of non-traditional and rather competitive skills from new recruits. National defense in the 21st century requires digital natives with the capacity to understand machine learning as well as machine guns. Unfortunately, less than 30% of American youths are even eligible for military service, and only 2% of 17-to-21-year-olds fall into the optimum category with the necessary credentials and interest to serve.
In the next decade, this pool of potential recruits might continue to narrow as the private industry offers more lucrative salaries and less rigid career paths to a tech-savvy generation jaded by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly disconnected from its military. Polling shows that the under-30 age group contributed most significantly to a recent steep decline in America’s trust in its armed forces. These trends have the potential to exacerbate what is already a disquieting civil-military divide, as the number of veterans in Congress decreased by 60% between the end of the Vietnam War and now. Astute observers saw this coming.
As far back as the early 19th century, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the potential for America’s democratic army to evolve into an isolated warrior class that has little in common with the civilian population. He even proposed that all democratic militaries would eventually resort to conscription to meet their defense needs. This is not to say that the United States should reconsider the draft, only that its massive all-volunteer military is unique in world history and increasingly bound to an exceptional demographic to sustain.
A TALE OF THREE OPTIONS
To field its active force in the coming decades, the Pentagon must either lower its standards for enlistment, maintain high levels of interest from its military offspring, or find ways to extend that interest into previously untapped non-military communities. Lowering standards would be the least preferred method. Many officers tasked with cleaning up the services after the Vietnam-era draft could attest to this. Admittedly, there are particular enrollment standards that do little to promote good order and discipline that the Pentagon could certainly revisit. Among these are its tattoo policies and stance on minor disabilities that denies applicants with critical skills.
In terms of casting a wider net, some have suggested exploring ways of generating greater interest from underrepresented communities, such as women, minorities, and students at technical colleges. But when two thirds of the active force do not consider military service a favorable option for their own children, the Department of Defense can hardly make a compelling argument to families far removed from the realities of military life. There exists an important distinction between incentives to serve and service as an incentive.
If the Pentagon becomes desperate to incentivize recruits from historically disinterested segments of the population, it could end up attracting the right talent for the wrong reasons. This could give way to a slew of additional problems related to discipline, retention, and security. The allure of incentives, such as enlistment bonuses, has a shelf life equal to that of the potential recruit’s desire to serve in the first place. Any outreach programs will have to find ways around these hurdles. As a result, the Pentagon may be forced to continue relying on its pool of multi-generational military families to sustain its end strength. To do this properly, the department must look inward as much as outward.
WHAT TO DO?
The most effective long-term strategy for building a resilient future force is to invest more appropriately in the present one. There is simply no way the defense enterprise can compete for talent with its current skyrocketing suicide rates. Suicide prevention — not simply awareness — rooted in expedited clinical trials of emerging treatments should be as much a cornerstone of defense innovation as any weapon. These are the real “hard conversations” the joint force should be having: What does the end of the war in Afghanistan mean to service members who spent years of their life fighting there, and are we doing enough for Gold Star families?
In addition to caring for service members, quality of life for their dependents is also an area in which there is much room for progress. Despite legislation in various National Defense Authorization Acts (2015, 2017) meant to improve family stability, military moves remain frequent, expensive, and disruptive. A 2018 RAND report concluded that these moves are “negatively correlated with service member retention intentions.”
Getting the right people in uniform will not be easy, but considering the breadth of security challenges facing the United States, it cannot afford to get this wrong.
Chief concerns plaguing military families have remained surprisingly consistent since the first annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey in 2010. Scarcity of spousal employment opportunities, quality of children’s education, and a lack of stability top off those lists. The majority of these challenges could be solved or at least improved by modifying the frequency with which military families are moved or separated from each other.
Congress could direct a review of the personnel policies that obligate time-on-station requirements, which are often based on rigid career tracks or outdated promotion board criteria. Certain talent management initiatives are already looking to revise these practices. From toxic senior leadership and rampant sexual assault claims; to decrepit military housing and peacetime training schedules that needlessly separate families, there is no shortage of work to be done. These headlines impact not only the active force, but they also shape the perceptions of the civilian communities that the Pentagon is trying to reach. The United States still needs the best and brightest to defend its interests — perhaps now more than ever. Getting the right people in uniform will not be easy, but considering the breadth of security challenges facing the United States, it cannot afford to get this wrong.
Military service has been a remarkably enriching experience for me and my family. Yet, my school-age children have had nearly as many homes as birthdays, and I continue to see families struggling to have their voices heard. While the above challenges are often dismissed in military circles with a Mandalorian “this-is-the-way” quip, it might not be the best way to attract and retain the kind of talent the Pentagon needs to remain competitive against a sophisticated peer adversary. Washington’s priorities must reflect that understanding if it is serious about putting its ambitious strategic theories into practice for the 21st century.
Michael P. Ferguson, M.S., is a US Army officer with operational experience throughout Europe, Africa, and Southwest Asia. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and frequent contributor of national security content. His work appeared most recently in The Hill, Strategic Studies Quarterly, and Small Wars Journal. You can find him on LinkedIn.
*The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect official positions or policies of the US Army, US Department of Defense, or US Government.