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The U.S. Army has been falling short of its recruitment targets

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Army is struggling to convince people to join the service. It missed its recruitment target last year by about 15,000 people, and U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth called it a, quote, "serious situation." This year, she's been meeting with students, school leaders and recruiters. And she's with us now to tell us more. Secretary Wormuth, thank you so much for being here.

CHRISTINE WORMUTH: It's great to be with you.

RASCOE: What are these young people and school leaders telling you when you meet with them?

WORMUTH: When we ask kids about, you know, what are the barriers to thinking about joining the Army? - they tell us, fear of death or injury, fear of leaving friends and family, leaving home. They think somehow, the Army will put their life on hold.

RASCOE: How do you get past that fear that people have, which is a reality of going into the military?

WORMUTH: You're right. That absolutely is a reality, and there's no way to get around that. But what we focus on is, you know, guaranteeing our soldiers that they will get the absolute best training possible. They will have the absolute best equipment possible with which to fight. They will have the absolute best medical care available if they are injured. But I think it's also important to remind people, you know, that we are not in a period like we've been in in the last 20 years where we have tens of thousands of soldiers deployed and actively fighting in Iraq, in Afghanistan. So the vast majority of young people who join - their chances of actually being injured or killed are very small.

RASCOE: The post-9/11 wars - do you feel like that has deterred some young people from wanting to join?

WORMUTH: I think it has. I think a lot of young people may think that if they join the Army, you know, they're immediately going to be sent to some foreign country and immediately be sent into combat. But a lot of what we're doing today is working with our allies and partners all around the world to build up the capacity of their militaries. We do things like, obviously, going to Europe to be with our NATO allies to deter Russia from coming any further than they've already come in Ukraine.

RASCOE: The Army has always been a place to go for people who may not have all of the economic resources to, you know, better themselves and get more money in society. What does the Army offer now with the economy doing relatively well?

WORMUTH: Certainly, the competition has intensified. You know, unemployment is very low, as you said, and a lot more companies in the private sector are offering more comprehensive benefits than they used to. You know, I think one of the biggest benefits we have is the GI Bill, which pays for college, you know, in its entirety. And we have, you know, terrific health care, 12 weeks of paid parental leave. There's also, I think, the intangibles of the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And in the studies we've done of young people today, community and purpose are something that Generation Z and Generation A are really yearning for. And I think, you know, that is the Army in spades.

RASCOE: And so let's turn to the recruitment of women and other diverse groups in the Army. There are all these battles over access to reproductive health care, and there are battles over LGBTQ rights in some states. Some may not feel safe to be based in places where they feel like they may not get proper care, or they feel like their identity may come under attack. How do you deal with those sorts of challenges?

WORMUTH: Well, we want anyone who wants to serve and is qualified and physically fit enough to serve to be able to serve in our Army. So we do have training that is focused on building cohesive teams, making sure that our soldiers know how to treat each other, frankly. And, you know, we spend a lot of time working on preventing sexual assault, sexual harassment. You know, we have really, I think, tried to focus on that in the last couple of years.

RASCOE: What specifically is the Army doing to make sure that recruits are protected?

WORMUTH: First of all, I think key to driving down the incidences of sexual harassment and sexual assault is engaged leadership - officers and NCOs who know their soldiers, know what's going on in their lives and, you know, making sure that when - if there start to be any kind of warning signals, that the leadership can get on top of that. You know, in the intense years of the war on terror, we may not have been focused on that as much as we should have.

The second thing I would say we're doing is really training our soldiers to know what right looks like. The third thing that we're really focused on is how we're responding to these reports of sexual harassment or sexual assault. And soldiers in the past, I think, didn't always feel confident that a leader in a unit would do the right thing if they had to essentially choose between two soldiers. So now we have a new Office of Special Trial Counsel. Those crimes are now prosecuted, if you will, entirely separately. And our hope is that will rebuild some trust and confidence in our system and encourage people to come forward if they have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.

RASCOE: For women who may be interested in joining the Army but are concerned that they may be stationed in a place where they wouldn't have access to an abortion, is that something that the Army is thinking about?

WORMUTH: Forty percent of our female soldiers now, you know, would be stationed in states that have limited or highly restricted access to some reproductive health care services. They can take leave and not have it be deducted from their vacation leave, if you will. And the department will also pay for travel to a state where they can get the reproductive services that they need.

RASCOE: There are some Republicans, like Indiana's Jim Banks and Florida's Mike Waltz, who have accused the Department of Defense of being too, quote, "woke." What do you say to those criticisms?

WORMUTH: You know, we are not a woke Army. We are a ready Army. Our focus in the United States Army is on training, warfighting and lethality. We are just not focused on wokeism, if we could even all agree on what that even means. And it's not an issue either in terms of the young people who are looking at joining the United States military. You know, I would welcome any member of Congress to come and visit an Army installation, whether it's here in the United States or overseas, and see what we're doing.

RASCOE: That is U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. Thank you so much for being with us.

WORMUTH: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.