“We’re looking for a few good men,” proclaimed a United States Marine Corps recruiting ad that first began in the 1970s. Likewise, the United States Navy has told would-be sailors for decades that they could “see the world.” Today, all military services are struggling with recruitment – as there just aren’t enough good men and women signing up.

Even in the post-pandemic era, it is easy enough (and affordable enough) for many Americans to travel the world, so fewer may be interested in doing it in uniform.

In fact, the United States Navy has actually increased its recruiting goal by 3,400 sailors to meet its Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) end strength requirement. The sea service needs to recruit 37,700 active-duty enlisted sailors in FY23, based on the targeted end strength set in the budget and forecasted personnel losses. That goal is significantly higher than the FY22 goal of 33,400, which the Navy had exceeded by just 42 sailors.

Moreover, the Navy had failed to meet the FY22 goal for active-duty officers, as well as both enlisted and officer goals for the reserve. The service has already planned for a reduction in total active-duty officers, which could decline from 56,657 in FY22 to 55,845 in FY23. Moreover, the Navy also budgeted for fewer midshipmen.

The U.S. Navy has cited a difficult recruiting environment for its failure to meet its recruiting goals. Competition for talent remains fierce within the various branches of the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as the private sector.

Fewer Young Americans Are Eligible

All of the services continue to struggle to fill the ranks, but the United States Army has faced the biggest shortfalls among all branches. It failed to reach its recruiting goals this year – and as it currently stands, the service is about 15,000 soldiers, or 25% short of its goal.

It isn’t just the lack of interest from younger Americans in joining the military that is an issue. There is also the fact that more than three-quarters of Generation Z could be deemed ineligible for military service without a waiver. A 2020 Pentagon study that was publicly released disclosed found that 77% percent of 17 to 24-year-olds would not have qualified for multiple reasons.

Those include being “overweight,” “drug and alcohol abuse,” “medical/physical” health, and “mental health” as the most prevalent disqualifiers at 11%, 8%, 7%, and 4% respectively. A 2021 report from Johns Hopkins also found that about 56% of Americans aged 18 to 25 could be described as overweight or obese, and that number has steadily risen in the past decades.

It does remain possible for those recruits who fail to meet body fat requirements to receive waivers, this has remained an obstacle for military recruitment.

Mental illness is also getting far more attention than it has in the past, and while historically mental disorders including schizophrenia and bipolar disorders were disqualifiers, today a history of treatment for anxiety and depression is also obstacle for recruiters.

Drug Use – That’s A Big Problem

The U.S. military generally has maintained a zero-tolerance approach for controlled substances that include cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. However, many branches including the Army and the Navy have begun issuing waivers for some cannabis users as a result of widespread popularity and legalization. More than 50% of new recruits hail from states where cannabis is now legal for medical or adult use.

Though it remains illegal on the federal level, currently, only 11 states still prohibit the use of all forms of marijuana: Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

It was just last month that the United States Air Force and the United States Space Force began to essentially look past prior usage of the recreational drug.

Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander, Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, explained that it is becoming necessary to consider the option of granting waivers to recruits who test positive for THC, the main “high-inducing” chemical found in marijuana, prior to shipping out for training.

The United States Army currently enforces a 90-day waiting period before recruits who test positive for THC when entering MEPS can request a waiver to join the service. However, if a “first-time” offender subsequently tests positive again for any drug, that individual would be disqualified from joining the Army.

Likewise, the United States Marine Corps currently allows THC-positive recruits to request a waiver that would override their disqualification. The Navy also began a two-year pilot program last year that allowed qualified applicants who had tested positive for marijuana or THC at MEPS to receive a waiver to move on to boot camp following a 90-day waiting period.

Inked Up

The rules around tattoos have also led to some confusion, even as most branches of the military have provided waivers for enlistees with a bit of ink on their skin. In June, the Army even had to take some steps to clarify what is actually permitted when it comes to tattoos.

According to research from the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), 41% of 18- to 34-year-olds have at least one or more tattoos. The Army originally began allowing Soldiers to have tattoos in 2015, granting more freedom for individual expression.

That can include one tattoo on each hand, as long as they do not exceed an inch in length – while tattoos can also be impressed between fingers as long as the designs cannot be seen when the fingers are closed. Previously, recruits who had tattoos in these areas had to file waiver exceptions and sometimes even had to wait weeks before they could be processed into service. The exception was ring tattoos, which were permitted.

Body art will also be allowed, provided it isn’t visible above the collar.

However, the Army will continue to prohibit tattoos on a soldier’s face. In addition, the tattoos cannot be simply covered up with bandages or wrappings to comply with the regulation. Recruits may still file for an exception if they would like to receive a facial tattoo for religious reasons.


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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.