Defense Secretary Robert Gates is challenging more students from elite universities to join the military — making the case that those who do serve are being stretched too thin for the sacrifices they make.
“Instead of wearing J. Crew, they wear body armor. Instead of carrying book bags, they are carrying assault rifles,” Gates said in a speech Wednesday at Duke University. “And a number of them - far too many - will not come home to their parents.”
Gates, a former president of Texas A&M, analyzed recruitment patterns. He said that the armed forces remain broadly representative of the working and middle classes and that education levels are higher than ever, with many high-ranking officers holding Ph.D.'s.
Having said that, the nearly four decades of all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where. Studies have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to join the military is growing up near those who have or are serving. In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ portion of the population as a whole. Concurrently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast, and major cities continues to decline. I am also struck by how many young troops I meet grew up in military families, and by the large number of our senior officers whose children are in uniform – including the recent commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq whose son was seriously wounded in the war.
The military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families. With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success – with those who have friends, classmates, and parents who have already served. In addition, global basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, and here in North Carolina. For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the northeast and on the west coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake.
He closed by noting the reality of sacrifice and the opportunity for service:
But beyond the hardship and heartbreak – and they are real – there is another side to military service. That is the opportunity to be given extraordinary responsibility at a young age – not just for lives of your troops, but for missions and decisions that may change the course of history. In addition to being in the fight, our young military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, have to one degree or another found themselves dealing with development, governance, agriculture, health, and diplomacy. They’ve done all this at an age when many of their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies. And that is why, I should add, they are often in such high demand with future employers and go on to do great things in every walk of life.
So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word. To expand what you thought you were capable of doing when it comes to leadership, responsibility, agility, selflessness, and above all, courage.