WASHINGTON -- As military branches explore ways to attract people while struggling to meet recruitment expectations, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wants defense forces to expand the eligibility for young Americans interested in joining the service.
Cotton -- speaking Wednesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing -- called on branches to reconsider eligibility measures for young people, adding that the current waiver process to qualify can be a lengthy process.
"We should find ways to help young men and women be eligible for our services, not try to find ways to keep them out," the Little Rock senator said before Army, Navy and Air Force representatives.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held the hearing in regard to military branches facing challenges in recruiting and retaining talent. During fiscal year 2022, the Army gained around 45,000 new soldiers, a figure below the branch's 60,000 soldier goal. The Air Force expects it will miss its active duty recruitment goal this year by as much as 13%, or more than 3,000 airmen.
The military branches face the same issues in recruiting new members including competition with the private sector regarding hiring practices and perks; limited access to young people during the coronavirus pandemic; reduced eligibility to serve; and a declining public interest in considering a military career.
"As the Army has made clear, today's recruiting landscape did not emerge overnight, and it will take more than one year to solve," Gabriel Camarillo, undersecretary of the Army, told senators.
Cotton, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army, pressed officials about declining eligibility in military branches, in which recruiters consider factors such as age, education, physical and mental health, and criminal history. According to Camarillo, the percentage of Americans eligible for Army service declined from 29% to 23% over the past decade.
"I don't think that's a good trend, and I don't think that's a necessary trend, either," Cotton said.
"Sometimes, we have witnesses come in front of the committee -- oftentimes, uniformed witnesses -- who cite that data as if it is a point of pride how few young Americans are even eligible to serve," the senator added. "I think we have to fish in a much bigger pool if we're going to address the recruiting crisis we face."
If a recruiter rules someone is disqualified, that person can seek a waiver with one option involving intervention from one's federal lawmakers. Cotton mentioned plausible scenarios involving young people denied military service for past use of prescription medications or minor crimes.
"You can't have serious felons, you can't have violent felons, you can't have people prone to that kind of thing," the senator said. "If they're a juvenile delinquent who came from a broken home and turned themself around and have a chance to serve, I think we got to make space for them."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, echoed Cotton's concerns.
"I'm not advocating for lowering standards to the point where it endangers safety or the effectiveness of the Army," King said. "The waiver process is fine, except it's a waiver process and it involves a lot of steps and a lot of time. Somebody might just say, 'To heck with it. I've got a good offer over here in the private sector.'"
Camarillo said the Army is analyzing the current waiver approach to streamline the process. The undersecretary mentioned Army data indicates a majority of recent waivers involve denials over previous treatments for mental and behavioral health.
Military branches have made changes to the recruitment process in order to meet goals, including initiatives offered to recruiters and new marketing techniques to generate interest in military service. The Army launched its multimillion dollar "Be All You Can Be" campaign earlier this month -- the first brand refresh since 2001 -- which will include outreach to young people through social media and other platforms.
The Army and Navy additionally offer preparatory courses to provide possible recruits with opportunities to meet academic and physical standards.
Multiple lawmakers, including Cotton, asked representatives about an Army survey regarding recruitment and retainment. The survey, which the Army discussed with the Associated Pressin February, points to young people being discouraged from military service over concerns about how joining could affect their lives and careers.
Congressional committees have received a summary of the research but not detailed data; Camarillo stated submitting such information without additional military approval would spark privacy concerns over access to information about interviewees.
Republican Reps. Mike Waltz of Florida and Jim Banks of Indiana sent a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth last month requesting a release of the data, arguing "wokeness" has harmed the military's recruitment and morale. Five percent of the Army survey respondents cited "wokeness" as an issue with recruitment, but Waltz and Banks doubt these findings.
Republicans have used "wokeness" and similar terms to criticize policies, corporate actions and efforts intended to address racial and social injustices.
Cotton asked Camarillo if the Army has responded to the letter. Camarillo noted he was not sure about the status of the response, but he would provide the senator with an answer.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the committee's chairman, rejected claims about "wokeness" hurting recruitment efforts.
"Let me be clear: Diversity and inclusion strengthen our military," the Democrat said. "By every measure, America's military is more lethal and ready than it has ever been. It's also more diverse and inclusive than ever before, and this is not a coincidence."