Seventeen years of war, TV spots depicting the struggles of wounded warriors and curbs on military advertising budgets have left the armed forces with an image problem that could take years to repair, said a senior Defense Department official.
Unsettling myths about the military are rising among recruit-age youth and "influencers " -- parents, teachers, clergy and coaches -- in part because increasingly they have no personal or family ties to the armed forces, said Lernes "Bear" Hebert, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy.
"While there is great support for military service men and women, we do find that misperceptions about service have taken a toll on propensity to serve," Hebert said. "And because we're not out there offering a contrary message, we're seeing a decline that is most troubling."
He cited various recent survey results that show a majority of recruit-age youth and influencers perceive service life negatively. Many also are surprisingly unaware of key attractions of service life, including robust GI Bill education benefits to earn college degrees and skills training that can lead to satisfying civilian careers.
For example, 63% of youth ages 16-24 believe it is "likely" or "very likely" that a person leaving the military today has psychological or emotional problems. "They hear about post-traumatic stress disorder and all the challenges faced by service men and women post-conflict, and believe that's indicative of the vast majority of individuals who serve," Hebert said.
The same survey found 61% of youth believe it likely or very likely someone getting out of service today will have difficulty readjusting to everyday life. Forty-eight percent believe it is likely or very likely that a person departing the military has a physical injury.
Absent any other information, Hebert said, the public has no way to put in context the many ads they see soliciting donations to support injured veterans.
"The risks are very real, and service is unlike anything else you will do in the civilian world," Hebert said. "But by far the vast majority of service members leave the military perfectly healthy and move on to very rewarding and fulfilling lives."
He cited other survey results showing that, in 2004, 85% of youth ages 16 to 21 thought it "extremely likely" that joining the military would allow them to earn money for college. By fall of 2016, the proportion who knew that, through military service, they could earn money for college had fallen to 60%.
The 25-point drop occurred despite the fact Congress, in 2008, enacted the Post-9/11 GI Bill, with vastly improved veterans' education benefits. So it is worrisome when recruit-age youth aren't being told at school or home about one of the most significant benefits they can realize from military service, Hebert said.
"We may not be able to compete with every large corporation on pay, but our benefits are second to none," he said. "So we really need to do something to educate prospective recruits that you can have a pretty good quality of life and a great [education benefit] on leaving service after one term."
Over the same period, 2004-16, the proportion of youth who felt the military provided an attractive lifestyle declined from 63% to 35%.
And one of the oddest myths about military life, particularly in this age of social media and instant communication, involves personal contacts. The proportion of youth who believe that, while in service, a member can stay in touch with family and friends fell from 58% to 23%. The apparent fear, said Hebert, is that "either you're going to be sequestered somewhere, or you're going to be deployed with no way to contact your family or friends."
On average, the services need 264,000 new recruits each year, taken from a pool of about 400,000 youth that surveys estimate have a propensity to serve.
To address negative misperceptions or general disinterest in the military among others, the Defense Department asked Congress to fund a mass marketing campaign to educate youth and their influencers on the attractions of service life.
"We fully appreciate that people don't get media the same way they did five years ago," he said. Therefore, the campaign "will be split between addressing influencers and [media] they frequent, as well as getting into social media and online to approach youth in a more meaningful way."
A second initiative, called "This is Your Military," won't require budget dollars. Starting in February, military commands and personnel will be encouraged to reach out to local communities to try to broaden understanding of service life.
Each month, the focus of this outreach will change. In February, the theme is that service members are "people just like you," Hebert said. In March, the focus will be educating communities and youth on the variety of job skills found in the military. In April, the breadth of education benefits will be highlighted.
The challenge of educating Americans on their military got harder after the draft ended in 1973. Over the years, more military bases across the country closed and the force got smaller, further reducing military ties to towns and communities.
In 1995, 40% of youth ages 16 to 24 had at least one parent who served in the military. By 2016, that had fallen to 15%, according to the department's Youth Attitude Tracking Survey (1995) and Youth Poll (2016).
"As a result, they don't get firsthand accounts of what military service is all about," Hebert said. Perceptions instead are shaped by "what they see in the news, what gets streamed or the many advertisements [for] helping [injured] veterans."
A survey conducted last spring showed 49% of young adults ages 17-35 couldn't name the four largest branches of service. Only 17% could get all five to include the Coast Guard. In the same Military Ad Tracking Reserve Study, 60% of young adults said they're not at all knowledgeable about the military.
The Defense Department aggravated the perception problem when, starting in 2010 as military budgets tightened and recruiting remained strong, it stopped advertising about the military in general, though each service continued to run their own ads to go after recruits as they needed. That rollback in advertising has weakened the military's "brand" among Americans, Hebert said.
"It costs a lot more to get back into establishing your brand than it does to maintain your brand," he said. "If Coca-Cola stopped advertising and we stopped calling everything a Coke, then it would take them a significant investment to get that branding back. That's the situation the department is in now. "
Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, is engaged personally in the effort to better educate youth and influencers. He has called for more detailed reports on recruiting and retention than past defense chiefs sought.
"He knows probably more about the business than we do by the depth of questions he's asking," Hebert said. He knows "recruiting is something you do [continually] and not just for recruits you're bringing in next year but for recruits you're bringing in for the next five years. ... It's a long-term investment the department has to make to sustain the all-volunteer force."
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# # # # Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles. Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback. Buy Glory Denied from Amazon.
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