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Most high schoolers can't get in military

Commission pitches 'Uncle Sam Needs You' campaign as senators seek ways to increase military service eligibility

A war poster with the famous phrase "I want you for U.S. Army" shows Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer in order to recruit soldiers for the American Army during World War I. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

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WASHINGTON - The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed for answers March 11 on how to address what he calls the most important issue surrounding military service: the small percentage of young people who qualify.

Congressional lawmakers had long studied how to expand military service eligibility for Americans who are between 17 and 24 years old, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said during a subcommittee hearing to discuss the findings of a congressionally mandated report about how to boost participation in military, national and public service.

Seventy-one percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the military, as they fail to meet requirements in areas such as physical and mental health, grooming standards, criminal records and education. Recruiters and experts have argued the lack of eligible candidates could pose a threat to personnel readiness because the military relies on a constant stream of new recruits each year.

Each year, about 32 million citizens fall in that age range of 17-24 - the prime recruiting target for the military. However, those who are interested in serving and who meet the academic, physical, medical, behavioral and legal standards drops to a pool of 450,000 candidates.

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual policy and spending priorities for the Pentagon, directed a National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to produce a report that identifies ways to improve military recruiting and attract young people to national and public service.

The commission spent the next two years holding listening sessions with various representatives to discuss the issue and develop best practices.

The 11-member commission eventually produced a 255-page report in March 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the congressional hearing on its recommendation.

The report's most controversial recommendation was women between the ages of 18 and 25 should be eligible for a future draft in the event of a perpetual war. The suggestion was made to ensure all Americans are considered to make the law for mandatory service in the event of a national emergency more equitable.

The Military Selective Service Act of 1917 requires all American men to register for the draft when they turn 18, though no one has been required to serve in more than 40 years.

"Do you have anything that you have done that is going to address the problem that we just don't have enough kids out there?" Inhofe asked.

Debra Wada, the vice chairwoman of the commission, said one way to solve the issue would be to take up the report's recommendation to include women in a future draft, pointing to a statistic that women are equally as qualified to serve as men.

"Young women are on average equally likely to qualify for military service as young men - 29.3% of female qualified military applicants versus 29% of male qualified military applicants," according to the report.

Inhofe said the lack of eligible Americans will remain an issue despite bringing women into the mix, noting the rising threat of Russia and China.

Commissioner Alan Khazei explained that one of the report's most significant recommendations is an overhaul or "new call to service," in which the commission aimed to "link all three branches of service: military, national and public."

"If we had a new almost like updated ‘Uncle Sam Needs You' campaign and gave young people the option and educated them about the different choices, and if we linked recruiting efforts, I think more young people would sign up to serve in public service, military service and national service," Khazei said. "We have a robust recommendation, which is to get to a million young people in national service within ten years."

Throughout the hearing, the commission's members detailed new ways to attract young people to serve in the armed forces, such as more incentives, particularly in education, better marketing tactics and increased career flexibility.

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