Military recruiting officials on Wednesday dismissed concerns that perceptions of an increasingly politicized military are undermining their pitches to young Americans, saying instead that unfamiliarity with military life poses a bigger barrier to efforts in boosting enlistments.

“Growing up, many of my neighbors in Milwaukee were World War II or North Korea veterans, and I had an idea of what service meant because they always spoke to me,” said Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, head of Army Recruiting Command, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“That’s not the same today. I’ve served all over the world, and I’ve moved with my family. We’ve often been the only Army family in neighborhoods off post.”

Army, Navy and Air Force leaders missed their recruiting goals for fiscal 2023. The Marine Corps and Space Force met their targets, but acknowledged that matching those numbers for this fiscal year will again be a challenge.

The slipping interest in joining the armed forces comes as public perception of the military continues to decline, according to recent national polling. Roughly 46% of Americans questioned in the annual Reagan National Defense Survey said they have a great deal of confidence in the American military, a near steady decline from 70% in 2018.

Survey respondents blamed politics creeping into military policies for part of the problem. Among Republicans, more than one-third (38%) said the institution is “too focused on social issues at the expense of a focus on warfighting.” About half of Democrats surveyed (53%) said the military is not appropriately balancing a focus on warfighting and social issues.

The military has been the center of a host of high-profile social debates in recent years, including fights over coronavirus vaccinations, diversity training, abortion access and transgender rights.

But pressed on the topic by senators, military representatives said they are not hearing complaints about politics invading the ranks from potential recruits.

“That does not resonate with the issues that are on the minds of our recruits or what we are hearing from our recruiting force,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein, commander of Air Force Recruiting Service.

Instead, service officials said, recruiters complain about inconsistent access at high schools and colleges, limiting their opportunities to explain military service to young men and women. And potential recruits have basic questions about military life, benefits and post-service career expectations that, if unanswered, shut down interest in enlisting.

“Forty years ago, if you had 10 dinner tables in a neighborhood, those dinner tables would each have a parent who served or a teacher who served or someone else who served. Today, it’s only one in 10,” said Rear Adm. Alexis Walker, head of Navy Recruiting Command.

“So, we are trying to fill that narrative space, talk about the positive benefits of service and get out that message that isn’t happening around the dinner table anymore.”

Officials said they are aggressively partnering with veterans organizations and other civic groups in an attempt to better spread that message. But they also acknowledged that other marketing and incentives will be needed to turn around the lackluster recruiting figures of recent years.

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.

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