Amid a recruiting crisis throughout the military, the top Marine general thinks young people need to hear more about the value of serving. And not just from him.

“As a nation, we need more parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and coaches to have candid conversations with young people about the value of military service,” Commandant Gen. David Berger wrote in a opinion piece Saturday in The Dallas Morning News.

Berger’s op-ed provides a blueprint of sorts for adults who haven’t served to address youth’s questions about the military. Does service teach you the skills needed for success in the civilian workforce? Does it instill good values? Can it even heal national divisions?

As Berger sees it, the answer to these questions is “yes.”

The military can teach specialized technical skills, as well as less tangible ones like leadership and discipline, he wrote. Its values are noble, he continued. And military service, which necessitates getting thrown together with people from a variety of backgrounds, is, in Berger’s view, “perhaps one of the most effective antidotes to national divisiveness.”

Some conservatives have argued that the very heightened political divisions that Berger describes have themselves hampered recruiting; in their view, the military has moved too far to the left, dissuading young people on the right from serving. But Berger’s op-ed implies an alternative perspective on the supposed politicization of the military.

“During the most formative time of a young person’s life, the experience of military service moderates views and opens minds to alternative viewpoints,” Berger wrote.

The general also framed military service — which, he acknowledged, can be hard — as a way to build resilience.

“The experience of service builds self-confidence and prepares young people to approach the inevitable adversities in life with composure and a sense of conviction about who they are and what they can accomplish,” he wrote.

The Pentagon has consistently found that “influencer” adults (parents, grandparents and others with influence in young people’s lives) are less likely to recommend or even support youth joining the Marine Corps, as compared to the other branches. In summer 2021, only 33% of influencer adults said they would recommend the Marine Corps to a young person, compared to 46% who would recommend the Air Force, according to a Pentagon study.

Berger isn’t the first military leader to write an op-ed in response to recent recruiting shortfalls. The secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force in October 2022 penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed, ostensibly aimed at young people rather than middle-aged and older adults, encouraging military service.

Berger’s point about resilience comes as some commentators have insisted that more challenges are exactly what Gen Z needs.

Today’s youth, some like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argue, have become anxious and emotionally fragile because they are spend too much time scrolling through social media and not enough taking healthy risks.

Berger doesn’t address one of young people’s top reservations about serving: the possibility of physical injury or death, which 65% of young people in a 2021 Pentagon survey identified as a reason they would not want to join the military. When the op-ed does refer to deployments, it mentions “the opportunity to serve as an ambassador of American values” while “working and living among our allies and partners” — not the prospect of combat.

For now, of course, those who enlist or commission are entering a peacetime military, not the same one that many younger veterans entered after 9/11.

The Marine Corps barely made its recruiting numbers for the 2022 fiscal year, but only after lowering its goals because of higher-than-expected retention.

All of the services had difficulties recruiting in 2022, with leaders blaming everything from low test scores to high obesity rates to the tight labor market as reasons that young people can’t or won’t serve. Berger himself has said that the now-overturned COVID-19 vaccine mandate added to the Corps’ recruiting woes.

Some have also pointed to the recent rollout of a medical screening system, MHS Genesis, which flags prospective recruits’ past health issues, temporarily or permanently blocking some from enlisting.

It is true that young people’s propensity to serve is low: Only 9% of young people in the 2021 Pentagon study said they would definitely or probably join the military, the lowest rate since 2007. In contrast, nearly half of teenagers with a parent serving in the military intend to follow in their parents’ footsteps, a 2022 survey by the National Military Family Association found.

But service members, veterans and military spouses are increasingly unlikely to recommend military service to young people, in large part because of the financial difficulties they have faced. And the commandant has previously stated that the military can’t rely only on youth with family ties to the military for its recruits.

“While the military will continue to attract those who are acquainted with the military and its lifestyle, we must do more to reach those who are unfamiliar,” he wrote in November 2022 for the U.S. Naval Institute. “Failing to do so risks reinforcing an increasingly closed system and its related pathologies.”

With a combined 144,631 digital and print subscribers as of the end of September 2022, the Morning News is one of the top regional newspapers in the South — the area of the country that has produced the most military recruits per capita. Forty-six percent of the military’s recruits in fiscal year 2019 hailed from the South, according to Center for Naval Analyses data.

Now in his final year as commandant, Berger entered Tulane University’s NROTC program in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War. That means he has personally experienced hesitance about military service from the adults in his life, he wrote in the Morning News op-ed.

“While I was eager to serve my country and become a U.S. Marine, not all my teachers and coaches shared my enthusiasm,” he wrote.

Read the (paywalled) op-ed on the Dallas Morning News website:

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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