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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This is an American problem’: Army officer hopes program will help with lagging recruitment

Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, speaks to a Spokesman-Review reporter at the newspaper office Aug. 24 about the challenges of recruiting, preparing the Army for new threats and other topics.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The “American problem” of dwindling interest in military service or fitness to enlist has Army recruitment numbers lagging. But a high-ranking Army official in Washington state is optimistic the nation’s young people still see value in serving .

“Only 23% of the people that are of age to serve are actually qualified,” Lt. Gen Xavier Brunson, who is the commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Army’s First Corps, said on a recent trip to Spokane. “This is now a condition. This is not an Army problem, so nationally what we have to look at is what’s going on with our youth.”

The Army was expected to fall short of its recruitment goal of 485,000 soldiers by nearly 20,000 for the fiscal year of 2022, according to a memo written by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville in July. A general lack of interest, ignorance and distrust in the Army are contributing to the declining recruits, not to mention COVID-related restrictions on schools, McConville said in the memo.

The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force also are reportedly struggling to meet with recruitment quotas post-COVID, according to a New York Times report.

Among those who want to serve, Brunson said recruiters across the country face a number of obstacles in getting them enlisted.

“Some of the challenges we have are obesity, we have pre-existing medical conditions, we have behavioral health problems, we have criminality, people with felonies, and we have drug use,” Brunson said. “This is not an Army problem, this is an American problem.”

The Army needs to enlist the help of key community influencers who can educate young people about military service and “lower the gates” of the Army by meeting those interested in serving halfway, Brunson said.

The Army plans to focus on three principles in its increased recruitment efforts: maintaining its existing standards, focusing on quality not quantity and investing in the youth of America.

Meeting them halfway

On his trip to Spokane, Brunson met with area educators and superintendents at a Gonzaga University talk about the types of opportunities the Army provides. These are the types of “influencers” who can have those discussions and are a crucial part of the Army’s strategy, he said.

There is an information gap that is preventing young people from enlisting, he said.

Nearly three-quarters of young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 claimed to be familiar with the Army but failed to understand many details about benefits and career paths, according to a 2022 Army survey.

Brunson said the Future Soldier Program acts as a sort of pre-basic training course to help potential soldiers meet the Army’s physical and academic standards.

The program was highlighted by McConville in a July memo that would prepare new recruits “without lowering quality.”

The Future Soldier Program is based in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, but could expand based on its results.

“There are people who can be led from the front, but there are a certain number of people with a desire to serve who can be led from behind a little bit,” Brunson said.

The Army intends to apply several other tactics to increase recruitment efforts, according to McConville’s July memo, such as increasing enlistment bonuses (up to $50,000) for some career fields, as well as “quick-ship” bonuses ($35,000) for recruits who ship out within 45 days.

Spokane-area recruiter 1st Sgt. Adam McCamant said he hasn’t seen many changes to the job since he began 11 years ago.

“Standards do change,” he said. “They get more stringent. Sometimes they’ll go the other way.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s easier or harder to get into the military. It’s just what’s needed for the country at that moment.”

Army recruiters in the north Spokane office might speak with 35 people on any given week, but “there are ebbs and flows,” McCamant said.

On average, recruiters will work with applicants for about 60 days before they meet Army standards, he said. As long as an applicant continues to show a desire to enlist, they’ll work with him, McCamant said.

“I think we just want to show people that the military is a viable option,” said Staff Sgt. Jesse Wallace, another recruiter in the north Spokane office. “We don’t want it to be seen as a last resort.”

Service should be seen as an opportunity, Brunson said.

“I get troubled when people talk about the Army as if it’s the end of a thing. The Army is the beginning of a thing,” he said. “It’s the opening of an aperture to the rest of your life.”

When Brunson thinks of what service means, he thinks of the first African Americans to enlist during the Civil War. The opportunity to serve helped solidify their status as United States citizens, he said.

“I think there’s a divide in the nation between the stewardship of the nation and ownership of the nation,” said Brunson, who has served in the Army for 32 years. “People own the title, ‘I’m an American,’ but stewardship says, ‘I’ve served the nation,’ and that’s what makes the republic sound.”

Rising to the challenge

Brunson also addressed other Army challenges and priorities.

As the U.S. military has shifted away from the conflicts in the Middle East since the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, Brunson said the U.S. military is largely focused on its “pacing challenge” with China.

But that challenge isn’t purely combat-oriented, Brunson said.

The goal is to provide engagement with U.S. allies and partners in the region to prevent potential crises from escalating into conflicts, Brunson said.

Those crises are often humanitarian and diplomatic in nature, he said.

“I think those opportunities we have to be in the region demonstrate not only national will, but the will of our forces to stand alongside those in the region, and that reassurance we provide is important on a number of levels. It shows that there is engagement across (diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic activities).”

I Corps is primarily focused on the Indo-Pacific region and regularly deploys in different countries each year on a host of military exercises in partnership with other nations, including Guam, Korea, Japan, Brunei, Mongolia and India.

“It’s really more about building relationships,” the general said.

Brunson assumed command of Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Oct. 6 after his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Randy George, was selected for a position as senior military assistant for the Secretary of Defense in June.