Force of the Future: Making service appealing to millennials

The Pentagon is trying to appeal to tomorrow’s troops with reforms to make military service more attractive.

It’s a difficult prospect for an institution that prides itself on tradition, not to mention studies showing that millennials are not signing up to serve.

According to a recent Harvard study, while 60 percent of millennials supported the use of ground troops in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, only 15 percent said they were willing to serve.

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter has embarked upon a series of reforms with an initiative he calls the Force of the Future to make the military an attractive career option and competitive with modern work places.

Included in the reforms so far is an allowance for servicemen and servicewomen to gain experience in the private sector, or to take sabbaticals from service to get a degree, learn a new skill or start a family.

Carter is also seeking to create a program that brings in technologists from private industry to the Pentagon for short assignments.

In addition, he has expanded maternity and paternity leave, as well as day care benefits, across all military branches. Carter has also opened all combat jobs to women in the military.

“And we will be announcing more reforms soon,” Carter said Monday at Yale, where he spoke to graduating members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

“Our nation is strongest when we draw from all of our strengths and when we give our best people every opportunity to serve. That’s also why we’re opening all combat positions to women, to expand our access to all of our population,” he said.

“Competing for good people for an all-volunteer force is a critical part of our military edge, and everyone should understand this need and my commitment to it,” he added.

Carter has brought his message to young people, speaking at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs last week and to students at several universities.
Amy Schafer, research assistant for Military, Veterans and Society at the Center for a New American Security, says the reforms are not necessarily geared toward getting millennials to sign up but to reflect changes in the workforce.

“It’s more so the way that we’re seeing the workplace evolve,” she said. “People aren’t staying with one company for 20 or 25 years now and garnering a pension at the end. We’re seeing people bounce around, and I think what we’re seeing in Force of the Future is more a reflection of how the workforce is today.”

Millennial veterans themselves are split on the reforms.

Wade Spann, 33, a Marine infantry veteran from Washington, D.C., who served three tours in Iraq, says the military shouldn’t have to cater to millennials’ needs. 

“I’m of the Marine Corps perspective,” said Spann. “We’re not offering you a rose garden.”

He also opposes integrating women into every combat role for the sake of gender equality, citing a study that showed gender-integrated units are less combat-effective.

“The reason the standards are there are because of blood, sweat and tears, and long, hard lessons learned,” he said.

Chris Evanson, 33, who served as an enlisted Coast Guardsman from 2001 to 2012 and is now Rep. Alan Grayson’s (D-Fla.) press secretary, says more flexibility is a good thing.

Evanson said he had to take night classes for four years in order to earn an associate’s degree while he was on active duty.

He asked for a two-year sabbatical to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but the Coast Guard rejected that offer. Evanson then left the service in order to earn his degree at American University, and he is now pursuing a master’s degree at Georgetown University.

He says the Pentagon should make sure to foster enlisted talent as well as commissioned officers.

“If you want to have a force of the future that represents the America we have today, you have to have all hands on deck — you can’t ostracize part of your community,” he said.