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U.S. Army reenlists old catchphrase to attract new recruits


The Army's got a new marketing campaign, but the slogan may already be familiar.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Be all you can be.

KELLY: The Army is bringing back its iconic ad campaign familiar to all of us who grew up in the '80s - bringing it back to combat a problem, which is it does not have enough recruits. In fact, the Army has not met its annual recruitment goal for nearly a decade. And so this week, the Pentagon announced they are changing strategy.

Well, the secretary of the Army is Christine Wormuth, and she is in our studio now. Secretary, welcome.

CHRISTINE WORMUTH: Thank you. It's great to be here.

KELLY: I think I had that tune stuck in my head during most of the 1980s. I - let's just start with the thrust of what you have just announced. As I understand it, this is a widening of the net. So the Army still wants to go after people just out of high school, but you're also looking to get people who may have a little college under their belt, maybe bring in more immigrants. Just walk us through the thinking.

WORMUTH: Yeah, that's exactly right, Mary Louise. We - right now, 50% of our new recruits are high-school graduates. But when you look at the actual labor market, only 15- to 20% of the labor market are people with just high-school degrees. So there's a much bigger pool that we need to be fishing in, if you will. So a lot of the changes we're going to make are aimed at helping our recruiters be able to talk to people who have gone beyond high school.

KELLY: OK. And before we get to more of what that solution might look like, just to focus on the challenge, why has it been so hard for the Army to fill its ranks? Why has it been such a struggle? I saw last year the Army was 15,000 soldiers short.

WORMUTH: First of all, the percentage of young Americans who are eligible to serve - you know, who are physically fit enough, who are mentally prepared to join the military - that pool has been shrinking over time, and now it's really only about 23% of people between 18 and 24 meet our standards. And then also...

KELLY: And just to be clear, that's people who maybe are overweight, out of shape or have some kind of criminal record or...

WORMUTH: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Other disqualifying...

WORMUTH: Criminal record or...


WORMUTH: ...Maybe have had, you know, issues with depression or other things like that.


WORMUTH: And then, also, the percentage of young Americans who are interested in joining the military has been declining over time. You know, there was a big surge, obviously, when the country was attacked on 9/11 more than 20 years ago. You know, and I think when you look at Generation Z, you see a lot of - that there's declining trust in institutions. There's some skepticism. And so we've got to overcome all of that and help young people see, you know, all of the possibilities that are available in the United States Army.

KELLY: So let's get into some of the challenges your recruiters may be facing. Our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, and our producer, Lauren Hodges, were just out at the Minnesota State Fair, where your recruiters were out in force. They heard from young people who said, I'm scared of getting killed or wounded. They heard from college students who said, look, I'm in college already. Why would I leave? And if I were to, like, why wouldn't I go through ROTC, have the Army pay for my college and then graduate an officer instead of a private? What do you say to those?

WORMUTH: Well, of course, I think it's normal that young people would have concerns about being injured or getting killed. We're not going to try to deceive people - that, of course, part of joining the Army is being willing to put your life on the line for the country. But what comes with that is all of the opportunities - you know, the education that we offer, the benefits, part of being something so much bigger than yourself and having a larger sense of purpose. That's not for everyone, but I think, obviously, there are thousands of Americans who find that a compelling value proposition.

And in terms of the other issues about schooling and things like that, we offer educational benefits for both enlisted soldiers as well as officers. So, you know, I know some folks who are warrant officers right now who are pursuing a master's degree, and the Army is paying for that.

KELLY: I want to let you listen to another person they met. This is a possible recruit named Harmony Cook. She says, when she talks about joining the military, her friends get worried.

HARMONY COOK: They say, like, I'm going to be treated more differently from the guys or, like, the guys are going to be intimidating and everything and that I might not be able to stand a chance.

KELLY: Speak for a moment, Secretary Wormuth, to just the challenges of recruiting women who - they make up about 16% of the Army right now - is that right?

WORMUTH: I think it's closer to 18- to 19%, actually.

KELLY: OK. I know it's been edging up, which is good.

WORMUTH: It has been edging up. I think those concerns that she has are, again, real. But the Army has been working incredibly hard on building cohesive teams, talking to our soldiers about what right looks like, as we put it - you know, what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable. And it's critical that our soldiers treat each other, man or woman, with respect. And it is critical that we offer a safe workplace. So that's something we've really been working on. We've also been working very hard to make sure that, when we have cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault, we can respond promptly and effectively. So I think that's something we have to talk about with young women. But again, you know, in the main, when you look at our retention, for example, we have historically high levels of retention. And so women who are coming into the Army - most of them want to stay in the Army.

KELLY: Americans' confidence in the military - not just the Army, but the military overall - stands at its lowest point in the past 26 years. That is per a recent Gallup poll. I have a couple of questions. One is, why do you think that is?

WORMUTH: I think, Mary Louise, it's a few things. I mean, again, I think if you look at polling, Americans' trust in institutions has been declining steadily. Other than small businesses, the United States military is the most respected institution. So we - Americans still, I think, have a huge amount of trust in the military. But I do think that we're - you know, we're suffering under the same dynamics as many other places, and I think Americans look and see a fair amount of dysfunction, you know, in our government. Obviously, I think the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan is a factor for people. So, you know, I think there are a number of different reasons.

KELLY: Given all that, does somebody have to be totally bought in, on board and persuaded to enlist, or do you welcome critics to Army ranks?

WORMUTH: I absolutely welcome critics. I mean, I believe in the product, if you will. I remember I went and talked to the Whitney Young High School in Chicago, and, you know, really sharp young people - they asked me a lot of hard questions.

KELLY: Give me one. I'm curious what they asked.

WORMUTH: Well, they asked me - you know, they basically said, why wouldn't I think that I'm going to be discriminated against? You know, it was a young woman of color. And she basically said, I'm - you know, I'm a woman. I'm a person of color. Everyone knows that the Army is racist. You know, we're not racist. But I welcome the chance to answer those kinds of questions because I believe that the United States Army is an incredible institution that gives people incredible opportunities - that does, you know, the most important thing, which is to defend this country. And I really, you know, believe that it offers an opportunity for every American who's interested.

KELLY: Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, thank you.

WORMUTH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.