Marine 2nd Lt. Matthew Weiss was watching a news segment in which senior military officers gave their thoughts on the military’s recruiting crisis when a thought occurred to him.
The generals and admirals who set policy — for whom he has immense respect, he stressed — joined the military 30 years to 35 years ago.
“Hey, a second lieutenant or a new private or lance corporal is the perfect person to actually be talking about these issues,” thought Weiss, now age 25.
So Weiss wrote a book, published in July by Night Vision Publishing, called “We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z.”
At 21 chapters, the book covers a lot of ground: emphasizing ways the military can give back to society, increasing remote work options, offering shorter contracts, loosening marijuana policies, eradicating sexual assault and more.
The process of joining the military is still fresh for Weiss, who became a Marine only a year and a half ago, he told Marine Corps Times.
A native of Tenafly, New Jersey, he received a bachelor of science degree and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
After graduating in 2021, he worked at the defense company Anduril before heading to Officer Candidates School in January 2022. Graduating as a Marine officer was one of the happiest moments of his life, he told Marine Corps Times.
Weiss, now a signals intelligence officer stationed in Darwin, Australia, said his reasons for pursuing a commission were twofold.
“Internally, I am patriotic — I’ve always wanted to do something and serve,” he said. “Externally, though, I really saw this as an investment in myself, an investment in being able to learn how to be a leader, an investment in my career, for that matter. I think a lot of Gen Zers are like that now.”
But the Defense Department is having trouble attracting these young adults. In 2022, the services struggled to meet accession targets, and, in early September, with less than a month to spare, the Army had met only two-thirds of its target for the fiscal year.
Military leaders, recruiters and observers have blamed the recruiting challenges on factors ranging from the lure of the private sector to a new medical screening system to “woke” DoD policies to a lack of patriotism and a rise in obesity among Gen Zers.
Some people think of Gen Z as the “everyone-gets-a-trophy generation,” Weiss said.
But that’s not how he sees it.
The generation that grew up during the global financial crisis, the divisive 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and the COVID-19 pandemic has learned to strive in a “more difficult, more competitive world,” Weiss said. Social media, with its numerical feedback of how people stack up to others in the form of likes and followers, also fostered Gen Zers’ competitive streak.
The military needs to offer this generation competition and incentives, Weiss believes.
One approach Weiss proposes is for certain commands to give incentives to squads or units that outperform others. That could come in the form of money — like the “beer money” that accomplished Marine marksmen received in the early 20th century, Weiss said. Or it could come in the form of on-the-spot promotions or more funds for a unit’s birthday ball.
In Weiss’ view, the military also should revamp its policies about which medical conditions disqualify applicants for service. Increasingly, applicants have been forced to seek medical waivers, even for conditions, like allergies or long-healed broken bones, that Weiss thinks may not affect job performance.
Weiss said he doesn’t see his proposals as lowering standards. Rather, he argued, they would attract more qualified applicants, allowing the military to raise standards.
Marine Corps Times asked retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Jennings, 56, who worked in Army recruiting from 1997–2005 and has since worked in civilian recruiting, to weigh in on some of the ideas Weiss proposes.
Dropping the ban on people who have smoked marijuana? Yes. “It was just a farce,” said Jennings, who recalled it was difficult to find teens who hadn’t smoked marijuana in the late 1990s in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Loosening the medical requirements? The military should certainly work to approve waivers for psychological conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder prescriptions, Jennings said. The reason for the strict medical standards, in his view, is that the military wants to prevent people from dropping out of entry-level training because of medical conditions and receiving disability payments for life.
Shorter contract options? “All that is in correlation to how long you’re training,” Jennings said.
Service members receiving longer, more expensive training should have to stay in for longer, the retired soldier said.
Jennings’ view is that a lot of the recruiting challenges could be fixed by rethinking basic training for those in noncombat jobs.
The Marine Corps, in particular, has an emphasis on every Marine being a rifleman who would be ready to fight if needed ― an idea that is core to that service’s ethos.
While Jennings said he liked Army basic training, he didn’t find it particularly relevant to his initial job as a military policeman.
“If you’re joining the Army to be a cook, for example, you’re never going to throw a hand grenade,” he said.
Weiss said he doesn’t want everyone to agree with everything in the book. He just wants to spark discussion.
“Everyone has a say in recruiting, because everyone was recruited,” Weiss said. “Everyone, sort of by nature, has a valid opinion that should be counted and understood.”
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.