WASHINGTON – For the first time in more than 35 years, the U.S. military has met all of its annual recruiting goals, as hundreds of thousands of young people have enlisted despite the near-certainty that they will go to war.
The Pentagon, which made the announcement Tuesday, said the economic downturn and rising joblessness, as well as bonuses and other factors, had led more qualified youths to enlist.
The military has not seen such across-the-board successes since the all-volunteer force was established in 1973, after Congress ended the draft following the Vietnam War. Just a few years ago, the military routinely fell short of its recruiting targets. The Army, in particular, has struggled to fill its ranks, admitting more high school dropouts, overweight youth and even felons.
Yet during the current budget year, which ended Sept. 30, recruiters met their targets in both numbers and quality for all components of active-duty and reserve forces.
“We delivered beyond anything the framers of the all-volunteer force would have anticipated,” Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said at a Pentagon news conference.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by experts to be an unprecedented test of the military’s resilience. Its ability to bring fresh recruits into the force is critical not only to increasing the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps, but to ensuring that additional units are available to rotate into conflict zones. Some Army units sent overseas recently have been deployed at less than full strength.
As lengthy, multiple combat tours place U.S. forces under enormous stress, the willingness of young people to enlist has surprised even military leaders, experts said.
The military is suffering “strains that are tragic in personal lives, but institutionally the ground forces have held together and are not broken. They are even recovering a little bit as we speak,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Overall, the Defense Department brought in 168,900 active-duty troops, or 103 percent of the goal for the fiscal year, officials said. It reached 104 percent of the goal for recruitment of National Guard and reserve forces.
Carr said strong recruitment was driven by economic conditions that have made civilian jobs scarce, along with other factors such as pay increases and investment in recruiting budgets.
The recession “was a force,” Carr said, and, “given the unemployment that we had not directly forecast, allowed us to be for much of the year in a very favorable position.”
Historically, there has been a strong correlation between rising unemployment and increases in “high quality” enlistments, according to Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon’s director of accessions.