It’s been more than 50 years since the United States ended the military draft.

But today, recruiting has been such a struggle that some are at least wondering —  could it come back?

While that is extremely unlikely, the Army has had to cut back.

What You Need To Know

  • The Army, along with the Navy and Air Force, have struggled to reach recruiting goals and while some cutbacks are due to a change in mission, there's no question recruiting is a big reason for cuts

  • Some Army units are functioning at 60-70%, and some are calling it a crisis. Things like a growing number of job opportunities, a lack of outside the family tree connection and even political concerns are a reason for the shortfalls.

  • The 10th Mountain Division is fighting back with a program called "Mountain Mentor" where students work with or even on Fort Drum for STEM-based programs and projects, career days and more

More than 50 years ago on Jan. 23, 1973, President Richard Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War — and with it, the end to the nation's military draft, moving the country into its current all-volunteer force.

“The needs for numbers in the military services was not going to be that great and we could get by,” said Robert Murrett, a professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University.

While there were concerns, especially during the Cold War, the Army's re-introduction of benefits, incentives and advertising (those "Be All You Can Be" commercials from the 1980s) led to general success.

“There is a certain advantage to having volunteers and people that are motivated,” Murrett, a Navy veteran himself, added.

However, now, history is starting to repeat itself.

“We're down to 60%, 70%,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Anderson said of normal 10th Mountain Division staffing.

Recruiting continues to struggle

The Army was 15,000 personnel short of its goal last year and 15,000 more the year before.

“It’s harder to do business that way,” Anderson added.

But it's not just the Army. The Navy and Air Force are also struggling. The Marines and Space Force are the only two branches meeting goals, according to Department of Defense data.

The military has become a family business, the military leaders said.

“Brothers, sisters, cousins, fathers, they're connected by blood to service,” said Anderson, the incoming commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which oversees the 10th Mountain Division.

“We’ve lost in some ways, some of our connection to our people,” Anderson said of those not connected to the military by family.

He says that lack of connection, while not the only reason, is a big reason the Army now has to cut back.

“We will consolidate certain capabilities now as a division level, and we will shrink the size of our brigades,” he said of the 10th Mountain, which is currently inactivating a number of cavalry units.

However, being forced to rely on that family tree is not the only factor.

“Job opportunities for 18- to 21-year-olds, thereabouts, is probably as good as it's ever been,” Murrett added.

There's just no longer that desperate need for military benefits and incentives. Most recruits today come from middle-class families in the most populated states. Those options, combined with real danger, mean if you want to join the military, you have to really want it.

“There is obviously risk in that tremendous reward, tremendous opportunity. But, we are here to fight and win our wars,” Anderson said.

Then, even when the Army does find a good pool of candidates, seven out of every 10 will not qualify — a percentage that continues to shrink as time goes on.

“The Army has decided we're not going to lower recruiting standards,” Anderson said.

Politics at play?

There's also the need to consider the current state of the country, however, with some politicians questioning how much of an impact politics have played on the recruiting issue.

The Ronald Reagan Foundation, an institute founded by the former Republican president, released a survey of Republicans and Democrats that shows trust in the military went from a high of 70% in 2018, down to 48% as of 2022, with 62% of those people believing the military is too involved in domestic politics.

“The leadership at [the Department of Defense] should be focused on national security and not on far-left wokeness,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican in Congress from the North Country, said last month.

Not everyone agrees.

“No, I don't think the military is too political. I think it's a question of valuing our service members,” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in an interview.

Concerns only heightened with recent news that the House version of the national defense bill contains a clause that would automatically enroll eligible men in the Selective Service.

Another House bill would add women to that.

“Not including them in the Selective Service is not only a disservice to these women, but also to our nation as a whole,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., said during a 2021 push for that addition.

Both are issues that some believe are just politics without real-world implication.

In the end of the 29% of eligible Americans, only 11% are likely to serve, according to Department of Defense data.

“We won't be military ready and we won't be able to defend our nation,” Gillibrand said.

Turning around the trend

The Army announced last year changes to "transform the Army recruiting enterprise" in an effort to boost its figures.

The changes will focus on five key long-term strategies, including expanding the prospect market, reexamining the recruiter selection process, new command insight, data-driven program decisions and realigning marketing.

It's a message strongly felt on Fort Drum.

“We've got to reconnect. Mountain Mentor is a way to do that,” Maj. Gen. Anderson said.

Mountain Mentor is Fort Drum's answer to reconnecting with people by connecting to students through youth STEM events, high school career days and more.

“Being here, I like it. I think I want to do it now,” Henry Ousley, a student in General Brown schools in Jefferson County, said of a career with military police.

There’s even preparation for life after service.

“I found my passion,” Sgt. Marlene Otero said. ”I hope like other soldiers in the future, and the ones that are here today, you get to have that passion and know there's opportunities out there.”

All critical because once people get in, they stay in. Retention and re-enlistment numbers blow away recruiting.

“I’ve truly enjoyed my time in the military and it's given me purpose in life, and I feel like I'm actually doing something,” Sgt. Tyler Studd said during his re-enlistment on Fort Drum.

“We will climb to the top, and we'll get there and keep showing our nation and the Army, kind of how it's done," Anderson said. "It starts right here at Drum."