Military recruitment has been voluntary throughout most of the history of the US armed forces, and the US military has functioned as an all-volunteer force since 1973. To increase the size of its forces during extraordinary times, the US military has enacted conscription through a government draft, an involuntary process of enrollment in which men are selected for military service.
In case the government decides to reinstate the draft, all males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who live in the United States must register with the Selective Service System, a database of men eligible for potential military service. This requirement is not limited to citizens; only males with current nonimmigrant visas are exempt from registration. Involuntary military recruitment was used during the Civil War from 1863 to 1865, during World War I from 1917 to 1918, and for an extended period from 1940 to 1973 spanning World War II (1939–1945), the Korean War (1950–1953), and the Vietnam War (1955–1975).
Without conscription, the US military depends on the recruitment of voluntary enlistees to staff its ranks, and each branch of the military has a recruiting service. The US Army Recruiting Command has more than 1,400 operations throughout the country and in US territories. Each recruiting service of the military has recruitment centers and participates in local events to attract new candidates. Potential recruits must meet the general requirements of the military as well as branch-specific criteria to be eligible for service.
Military recruiters maintain recruitment centers but also regularly visit high schools, colleges, job fairs, shopping malls, and public events to find new applicants. The military has launched recruitment campaigns through billboards, television, radio, and social media. During the first decades of the twenty-first century, the military has struggled to find enough people to meet each branch's recruitment quotas who are both willing to enlist and fit to serve. Incentives to enlist, including signing bonuses and skills training, are used in conjunction with appeals to a recruit's sense of patriotism. Though recruiters are bound by a code to maintain specific ethical standards, detractors have criticized the military for aggressively targeting low-income communities, minorities, and minors.
To enlist in the military, recruits must meet age, educational, physical, and citizenship or immigration status requirements. There is growing concern that an increasing number of Americans are ineligible for service. A 2018 report by Council for a Strong America titled Unhealthy and Unprepared revealed that only 29 percent of Americans ages seventeen to twenty-four meet the requirements to serve in the military. Thirty-one percent of young Americans do not meet physical requirements because of obesity. Some researchers express concern about how the increasing trends in ineligibility impact military effectiveness and national security. Compounded with the decline in eligible recruits, a growing number of young Americans are not interested in enlisting. In 2019 the Department of Defense (DoD) warned of a growing military-civilian gap, in which many young people do not have personal associations with people serving in the military or knowledge of military service.
In the first decades of the twenty-first century, though public confidence has eroded, the military continues to be one of the most trusted US public institutions. In the 2010s the demands of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on enlisted personnel, especially soldiers in the National Guard and reserves who serve in a part-time capacity, led to growing disillusion with the military as a means to earn more income to complement full-time civilian work or as a career path for young potential enlistees. This played a role in an ongoing shortfall of recruits, prompting changes to eligibility standards and calls for improved incentives. A divisive political environment, as well as a military environment that was seen as allowing sexual assault and gender-based violence to proliferate, further contributed to a decline in public trust in the military. Some military recruiters have also used unethical tactics, such as lying to recruits, threatening applicants with arrest, and advising recruits to forge documents. A November 2021 Ronald Reagan Institute survey on national defense found that confidence in the military had weakened significantly—from 70 percent of Americans having "a great deal" of trust and confidence in the institution in 2018 to 45 percent of Americans in 2021.
Recruiters have faced several challenges in the 2020s, from decreased public trust in the military to the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic and a dwindling number of Americans eligible to serve. The military's recruiting services introduced new online initiatives such as Army National Hiring Days, a virtual recruiting effort that includes signing bonuses and reimbursement for student loans. To attract new recruits, in 2022 the army increased its maximum bonuses for new recruits for a six-year service term from $40,000 to $50,000—the highest amount in its history.
High schools, colleges, and universities provide military recruiters with a large pool of potential recruits. Recruiters frequently set up booths in cafeterias, in student centers, and at career fairs. Additionally, recruiters seek the support of school faculty, such as teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors, who have strong relationships with students in the hopes they will encourage students to enlist. The military offers Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) offers programs at over 1,700 colleges and universities as well as an estimated 3,500 Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) programs at high schools as of 2021. ROTC programs prepare students to serve as military officers and help with college tuition in exchange for pledging service after graduation. JROTC programs provide an introduction to the military and teach leadership skills but do not require students to commit to military service.
Several organizations and student groups have protested the presence of military recruiters on school campuses. The Coalition for Alternatives to Militarism in Schools, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and other organizations seek to provide young people with ways to serve their country without joining the military. In an additional argument, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others contend that JROTC programs and recruitment at high schools violate the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides special protections for minors in armed conflict to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.
Protests to prevent military recruiters on campus have been hindered by legal protections afforded to the military by updates to US Code Title 10 during the 1990s and 2000s. These laws are commonly referred to as the Solomon Amendment after Republican congressman Gerald Solomon who originally proposed the legislation in the 1980s. The Solomon Amendment denies federal funds to any college or university, except those with a tradition of religiously motivated pacifism, that does not permit military recruitment or ROTC programs on campus. The legislation also requires that military recruiters be afforded the same access to high school students as colleges and employers. These provisions include providing recruiters with students' contact information, age, citizenship status, level of education, and academic major when requested. Proponents of allowing military recruiters on campus contend that such legislation is essential to maintaining an all-volunteer force.
Targeting Specific Segments of the Population
Financial incentives continue to be a driving force behind enlistment in the military. Recruiters often try to entice young recruits with the promise of assistance for college tuition, skills training that could foster a lucrative career, and competitive military salaries. The military has had success using financial incentives to attract new applicants, but recruiters have been criticized for misleading recruits about the likelihood that they will receive these benefits. For many people with limited career options, military service can provide opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. Consequently, military recruiters have been accused of targeting low-income communities and creating what is sometimes referred to as a "poverty draft." However, many military personnel find the term offensive and deny that a "poverty draft" exists. The US military maintains that most recruits are from middle class neighborhoods.
The military does adjust its standards for new recruits, such as minimum test scores or maximum enlistment age, when it is unable to meet its recruitment goals. While accusations of a "poverty draft" may be exaggerated, the military's willingness to lower its educational and aptitude standards causes concern that an all-volunteer force may not provide the best possible security. The targeting of economically disadvantaged communities bolsters the arguments of anti-war activists who contend that it is unjust for the poor to fight wars for the rich.
The military often tailors its methods when recruiting from different communities, including launching advertising campaigns that appeal to different demographics. For example, in 2021 the army released a new advertising campaign. Using animation to appeal to a young audience, the campaign highlighted soldiers from diverse backgrounds—such as a Haitian immigrant and a soldier with two mothers—who shared why they chose to enlist in the military. Advertising campaigns represent one component of a successful effort to increase diversity among enlisted personnel. Supporters of targeted campaigns assert that they allow the military to inform minority communities about opportunities to serve the country's interests while also improving their future education and employment prospects. Critics of these practices, however, argue that these campaigns pressure certain communities to accept the responsibility and sacrifice of national defense.
Military outreach to women has led to female recruits making up more than 18 percent of active-duty personnel. Among the hesitations cited by recruits and their parents, the military has a reputation for failing to address sexual harassment and assault. To increase recruitment among women, the military has sought to hire more female recruiters, address misconceptions about gender and service, and highlight the broad variety of jobs and opportunities available to all recruits.
Recruitment of Noncitizens
Foreign-born residents have also attracted the attention of military recruiters. Benefits available to servicemembers aspiring to become US citizens have included waivers of residency requirements as well as filing fees. Between 2002 and 2021, more than 148,000 foreign-born servicemembers obtained naturalized citizenship. In most cases, only permanent residents of the United States, informally known as "green card holders," have been eligible to enlist in the military. In addition to permanent US residency, noncitizens must also speak English fluently and meet all other general military requirements to enlist.
In 2017, under the administration of Donald Trump, the Department of Defense (DoD) instituted new screening policies for foreign-born military enlistees as part of a new national security strategy. In October the DoD released a new policy requiring green card holders to delay entering the military until a background investigation has been completed, a change from the previous policy that allowed entry after a background investigation had been initiated but not completed. The DoD also announced changes to the number of "honorable service days" that green card holders must complete to qualify for expedited citizenship. The period of service increased from one day to 180 days for active-duty members and to one year for members of the reserves. In addition, immigrant recruits had to undergo routine security checks every two years after enlisting, including after being discharged if they continued to work for the US government. In 2019 a federal judge ruled that the continuous screening rule for immigrant enlistees was discriminatory because US-born soldiers did not have to undergo the same monitoring.
In addition to the new screening policies, the Trump administration introduced changes that made it difficult for immigrant enlistees to obtain US citizenship. Administration policies led to an increase in the number of deported immigrant veterans. When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, his administration prioritized plans to remove obstacles for noncitizens to enlist and gain citizenship. In July 2021 the Biden administration announced a new process for deported immigrant veterans to return to the country.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, obstacles and setbacks for immigrant military members have resulted in fewer noncitizen enlistees since 2016. An estimated 24,000 noncitizens serve on active duty in the military. Some researchers have proposed that the military should prioritize recruiting noncitizens to address recruitment shortages and branch-specific skill gaps.
Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Recruitment
The COVID-19 pandemic led to social distancing measures and limitations on public gatherings that severely hindered military recruitment. In 2020, as recruiting stations and schools were temporarily closed, the military had to develop new approaches to its recruitment efforts. Instead of depending on campus visits and large community events to meet new recruits, military recruiters had to increasingly rely on virtual platforms for outreach efforts. Recruiters used social media to attract potential recruits and connected with young people through phone calls, chat rooms on job fair websites, virtual meeting platforms, and video gaming platforms. Virtual job fairs also became a popular way for recruiters to connect with potential recruits.
Military recruiters faced stiff competition for qualified applicants during the pandemic. The military provided financial incentives such as signing bonuses to attract recruits. The financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraged many current servicemembers to reenlist instead of leaving the military during the health crisis. Current soldiers reenlisting helped to reduce some of the burden on recruiters to reach certain recruiting targets.