The Reality of Our All-Volunteer Military

By Russell Beland and Curtis Gilroy
Saturday, November 25, 2006

For the first time since the American Revolution, the United States is fighting a protracted war with an all-volunteer force. The strain on both the military establishment and individual service members is apparent. But although there has been considerable concern that an all-volunteer approach could not possibly fill the ranks in wartime, both recruiting and retention of military personnel have remained strong during more than three years of American military operations in Iraq.

To be sure, the active-duty, reserve and National Guard components of the military have missed a few recruiting goals, but overall numbers remain solid. Retention rates also remain high -- in many cases a tour of duty in a combat zone actually appears to increase the likelihood of a service member's staying in the military.

Regardless of one's opinion of the management and progress of the war on terrorism, the concept of an all-volunteer force has been an amazing success by virtually any measure. The U.S. military is sustaining combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq while continuing to meet obligations around the globe. And even with unemployment rates near record lows, the military still has tens of thousands of young men and women on waiting lists to join the active-duty force.

Still, some individuals continue to look for trouble where none exists. One common strain of criticism surfaced in the Nov. 4 op-ed by Princeton professor Uwe E. Reinhardt, who asserted that "it is well known that to fill the ranks of enlisted soldiers, sailors and Marines, the Pentagon draws heavily on the bottom half of the nation's income distribution, favoring in its hunt for recruits schools in low-income neighborhoods."

The implication is that the military scoops up the disadvantaged, uneducated and unemployed from the nation's slums and sends them off to fight while the children of the upper and middle classes remain home in comfort and safety. That conveys an impression of military service as a last resort for those with nowhere else to turn. The reality is far different.

Each year about 180,000 men and women enlist in the active-duty forces (another 16,000 are commissioned as officers, and tens of thousands more, including many active-duty veterans, join the National Guard and the reserves). Those who enlist come from all parts of the country, from all races and ethnicities, and from households across the economic spectrum. Far from being concentrated among the poorly educated and economically disadvantaged, military recruits, the data show, represent the best of America's youth. More than 90 percent of recruits have high school diplomas, compared with 80 percent of American youth overall. About two-thirds of today's recruits score in the upper half of standardized aptitude tests. Military recruits are also more physically fit than American youth in general, and they are subject to strict character screening.

Finally, recruits come disproportionately from neighborhoods with above-average incomes. This was true before the war with Iraq, and it remains true today. In fact, those recruited during the war are more likely to come from affluent neighborhoods than are those who were recruited before the war.

A recent study by Tim Kane of the Heritage Foundation -- which is consistent with our own analyses -- showed that the percentage of recruits coming from the highest-income Zip codes in the United States had increased steadily since 1999, while the percentage coming from the lowest-income Zip codes had declined. By 2005 high-income areas were producing five recruits for every three from low-income areas. At the same time, recruit quality, as measured by high school diploma rates and aptitude test scores, remained high.

Those choosing to enlist in the military do so for a variety of reasons. Many are interested in economic factors, such as skills training and GI Bill educational benefits. For some it is travel and adventure. But the primary reason young people join the military today is service to their country. What we are witnessing in this time of war is a larger proportion of enlistees joining the military primarily for duty, honor and patriotism. Economic factors, while still important, are secondary for many.

An all-volunteer approach, with adequate compensation levels, has provided a steady flow of quality recruits for more than 30 years. Recruiting during wartime poses additional challenges, but even after more than three years in Iraq, the spirit of volunteerism continues to fill the ranks with high-quality men and women who serve because they choose to do so.

Russell Beland is deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower analysis and assessment. Curtis Gilroy is the director of accession policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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