Officials from the National Commission on Public Service offered a host of ideas to increase young Americans’ interest in serving in the military in testimony before Congress on Thursday, including better marketing, more incentives, and increased career flexibility.
One idea that didn’t get much support, however, was making every American serve.
“If you talk to the Department of Defense, they will echo the fact that at no point in time have we had such a professional force as we have now with the all-volunteer force,” said former Rep. Joe Heck, chairman of the commission. “And there are concerns about rotating people in for a one-year conscription, putting them through boot camp and then having them leave.”
Heck’s comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee came well after his panel finished its congressionally mandated work last year. But the formal presentation to Congress was delayed for months because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The report drew headlines last year for recommending that women for the first time be required to register for future military drafts, in an effort to provide equity in federal rules regarding potential conscription and to ensure all Americans are considered for mandatory service in the event of a national emergency.
But the report also took a broader look at military and public service, and ways to improve both. Heck said that commission members support a goal of voluntary public service for all Americans by 2031, and for broader changes to make military careers more available and attractive to young Americans.
Military officials have reported in recent years that less than one-third of Americans 18 to 30 years old are eligible to serve, due to fitness standards, past criminal activity and other current regulations.
Heck said the commission did not look at changing criteria for enlisting, but members believe that better outreach and better business practices could entice more young Americans to sign up for the armed forces.
But lawmakers questioned whether that alone will be enough. Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., served in the Army after being drafted in 1957. He said the experience changed his life for the better.
“I honestly don’t think I’d be alive today if I hadn’t, if it hadn’t been for the time that I spent there,” he told commission members. “I look at all the problems that we have with young people today and I think if they had gone through basic training and all that, I just think that would resolve a lot.”
Heck said commission members looked into the idea, but didn’t see it as a viable solution.
“We actually studied several foreign nations that have some form of mandatory service, and in fact met with representatives from embassies like Israel,” he said. “But that is a much smaller country in population.”
The report states that mandatory service — either in the military or in civilian federal programs — should be used “as a last resort only in response to national emergencies and to ensure the common defense.”
Defense Department officials in recent years have echoed that sentiment. Inhofe said that he doesn’t think it’s a likely policy change, but he does think it is worthy of public discussion.
Despite opposition to that idea, officials said they support maintaining the Selective Service System in case of such an emergency, even though critics have called it an unneeded waste of time and resources. It costs about $23 million annually to maintain, but hasn’t been used to mobilize personnel in more than 45 years.
And the commission has also recommended some type of individual ready reserve for civilians with in-demand skills, like cyber defense or medical experience.
Those individuals could be called to active duty in times of crisis, even without regular military training like that conducted by the National Guard or military reserves. Defense Department officials have so far been lukewarm to the idea.
The report findings — including the recommendation of adding women to draft lists — will play a significant role in debate around the annual defense authorization bill, expected to last until a final measure is agreed upon sometime this fall.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.