There were more than a dozen of them — some wearing caps denoting their military service, others in full uniform. They were veterans of various conflicts over the past several decades, many of them members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2736 in East Meadow. They paid a visit to East Meadow High School ahead of Memorial Day to ensure that the true meaning of the annual observance of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom was not forgotten.
“We wanted to come here and tell the high school students what it was like to serve,” one veteran, Frank Belardo, said. “We wanted to do this before Memorial Day to teach the students, and honor those who did not come home.”
But that wasn’t the only thing on the minds of the veterans as they met with social studies classes that day.
“It seems like less kids are going down that route of joining the military,” Navy veteran Tom Kelly said. “So you just have to keep reminding them about the commitment to America, and how proud we are. It’s something that should be carried on. It seems like it’s a dying art these days, but I hope not.”
Kelly wasn’t exaggerating. America’s military forces are struggling to recruit new members. The Army, for example, missed its recruiting goal by 25 percent last year, according to the military industry news outlet War on the Rocks. In fact, the Army believes its overall forces will be reduced by 20,000 soldiers by September — part of an overall downward trend across the branches.
Young people just don’t see the military in the same light that previous generations did. They are bombarded by images of war, death and gruesome injuries, as well as many soldiers returning home and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet that’s not the only factor causing a drain of personnel in the armed forces. The nation’s low unemployment rate means there’s less incentive for many to seek out the military. And the sheer number of people eligible to serve is lower than ever.
A Pentagon study last year determined that 77 percent of America’s 17- to 24-year-old population wouldn’t qualify without some kind of waiver. Many are overweight. Others abuse drugs and alcohol. And then there’s the growing number of young people who wouldn’t qualify because of mental and physical health issues, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 44 percent, the study concluded, would be disqualified for more than one reason.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, a ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shared during a hearing last year that “every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction.”
“To put it bluntly, I am worried we are now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force,” Tillis said, according to Military.com. There is “a small and declining number of Americans who are eligible — and interested — in military service.”
So, what can be done? Many military leaders and lawmakers are trying to figure that out. The branches already offer a number of incentives to new recruits — from signing bonuses to education funding, solid (and free) medical care, room and board allowances, and a month of vacation every year, among other things.
But we must do more — and maybe we can, right here, closer to home. The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps has been a fixture in thousands of high schools — and even some middle schools — across the country since 1916. It gives young people a taste of what it’s like to serve, without leaving home. And it has been instrumental in not only providing stability for many young people over the decades, but recruiting for military service as well, since nearly half of them eventually do that.
The problem? There aren’t enough JROTC programs, especially in New York. Especially on Long Island. The vast majority are concentrated in the Southeast, according to the Rand Corp. South Carolina and Georgia, for example, boast JROTC programs in far more than half their schools. New York? It’s less than 10 percent.
JROTC has been great at addressing demographic representation by being in many schools with larger ethnic diversity, Rand says. But geographic representation is severely lacking. Just 16 percent of young people live in states with high numbers of JROTC programs, while more than half of the total population of teenagers are in 28 states like New York where such programs are lacking.
More schools need to offer JROTC, but they can’t do it alone. Congress needs to expand JROTC overall — and pay for that expansion, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno and Johns Hopkins professor Nora Bensahel say. At the same time, members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — need to stop using the military as a political football.
“Painting the entire U.S. military as either woke or extremist undermines public support for the institution and the people in uniform, and often deflects examination of concrete problems that are affecting military capabilities and readiness,” Barno and Bensahel told War on the Rocks. “Elected officials should stop making broad assertions about the entire force, and instead focus their legitimate oversight role on the senior officials who testify in front of Congress.”
The brave men and women — like those who visited East Meadow High School — should forever be honored by all of us. But let’s not let their service and sacrifice become part of a dying breed.