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The U.S. military has entered 2023 amid its largest recruiting crisis since the end of the Vietnam War, with the possibility of being short thousands of new recruits. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act cut the Army’s size by 30,000 personnel, and the Pentagon is employing multiple methods to improve recruitment, from trying to reach Generation Z through video games and video game streamers, to increasing cash enlistment bonuses and changing mottos and commercials.
Blame for these shortages has been put on cultural issues, the state of the economy and other factors such as obesity and additional disqualifiers. However, there has been little discussion and recognition of how systemic disparities that some service members face in the military affect their propensity to join and serve.
Black service members make up 16% of the armed forces, according to 2017 Department of Defense data. Prospective recruits from this demographic who could be critical to solving the military’s recruiting crisis may shy away from service due to ongoing disparities in the military justice system and health and career outcomes.
The armed forces have issues with sexual assault and violence against women that the Department of Defense hasn’t adequately dealt with, along with systemic failures around suicide prevention and poor living conditions in soldier housing. Americans are increasingly less likely to join the armed services; even veterans are less likely to suggest it. Recently, the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy wrote a commentary for The Wall Street Journal calling for young people to join the military because of the good it can do for them — but it is hard to see the good that can be had from military service if these multiple issues continue to occur.
Military leaders have blamed negative narratives around military service for preventing people from joining. But systemic racism and discrimination are an exacerbating factor to the nation’s recruiting crisis — and therefore national security.
For example, the military’s judicial system has no explicit category for hate crimes, which the federal government, 46 states and the District of Columbia have on the books, making it almost impossible to fully quantify racial discrimination in its ranks. Black service members are as much as twice as likely to face a court martial than white service members, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which focuses on military justice.
These convictions can lead to “bad paper discharges,” which prevent service members from receiving benefits from Veterans Affairs. The status of attempts to reform the military justice system to deal with this issue is unclear.
Regarding suicide, Black service members have a suicide rate that is significantly higher than that of Black Americans who have not served, according to Defense Department data, a fact that has not been widely reported. Among Black veterans, the per capita suicide rate is double the national average for Black Americans who have not served, a 2021 VA report on veteran suicide shows.
Just as with health outcomes for Black civilians who never served, there is also a wide disparity between the health outcomes for Black and white veterans. A 2017 VA study found that Black veterans were less likely to receive diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder from VA compensation and pension examiners and that there is no current standardized system that forces examiners to use evidence-based assessment methods. A lack of a diagnosis from an examiner means that a veteran does not receive the tax-free monetary benefit paid to veterans for service-connected disabilities, and further, it means they cannot receive VA treatment for the illness or injury.
Based on a Defense Department report on officer promotion rates, Black male and female officers are promoted at a lesser rate for senior positions than their white counterparts. This lack of Black leaders at the highest levels is evident in the numbers. In May 2020, there was just one Black four-star general in the Army versus 11 white counterparts, and there were two Black brigade commanders versus 94 white counterparts, according to Defense Department data.
Racism has long weakened the military from within, historian Natalie Shibley argued in a 2021 commentary for The Washington Post. It is still prevalent; nearly one-third of Black service members reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment or both during a 12-month period, a 2017 Defense Department study found.
In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a national reckoning over race, the number of Black youths who indicated that they likely would serve in the military decreased by almost half versus the total from the previous summer, according to Defense Department polling. Last year, a survey by Blue Star Families, a group that advocates for military families, found many Black service members were turning down assignments based on a fear of racism at some duty stations and in certain career fields.
Any effort to solve the military’s recruiting problems should seek to rectify the disparities that Black service members and veterans face. Just as Congress has done in the aftermath of the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, decision-makers should discuss adding stronger protections for minority service members through policy and legislation.
The military is an organization that prides itself on defending our American ideals. Those ideals should be realized while a person is in the service.
Daniel Johnson is a Roy H. Park doctoral fellow at the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Johnson was a journalist in the Army in 2016 in Iraq and has contributed reporting to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
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