By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 02, 2023) -- At the end of January 1973, then-Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird announced the U.S. military would, going forward, fill its ranks exclusively with volunteers rather than with draftees. A half-century later, the decision has been proven sound, said the deputy defense secretary.
"After 50 years, the all-volunteer force remains the best model for the U.S. military," said Kathleen H. Hicks. "And that's why we celebrate -- it has delivered for us operationally and societally. It was the right decision for the U.S. military and the nation at the time. And over the last 50 years, in times of conflict and in times of peace, it has continued to be the right decision."
Hicks spoke Tuesday during a conference titled "The All-Volunteer Force at 50: Civil-Military Challenges and Opportunities," which was hosted by Georgetown University's Center of Security Studies and the America in the World Consortium.
Since the end of military conscription in the United States, Hicks said, more than 11 million have joined active-duty service. Today, she said, more than 1.5 million men and women serve in the uniform across the total force.
While the all-volunteer force has proven successful, Hicks said, in recent years the military services have faced ever increasing challenges in recruiting volunteers to serve. She said there's a variety of reasons for this.
Most recently, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many schools, creating new barriers for recruiters to meet with enlistment-aged students. Low unemployment and increased competition for talent have also made it harder for the military to attract new service members, Hicks said.
Additionally, over the past 40 years, the number of military veterans in the U.S. has dropped. In 1980, Hicks said, about 18% of Americans were veterans. Today, that number sits at about 7%.
"[This is] further reducing Americans' familiarity with the military," she said. "This means fewer Americans have direct ties to a family member, friend or neighbor who has served. And without those direct ties, it is harder to observe the military way of life up close."
Despite challenges in recruiting, Hicks said the U.S. military is doing well with retention -- that is, keeping people in service after they have initially signed up.
"Even as recruiting is hard today, the U.S. military's retention numbers are outstanding, with every service exceeding 100% of their goals in 2022," she said. "The all-volunteer force is proving its value proposition to those who choose it. It creates long-term opportunities for military personnel while in uniform and thereafter--and in virtually every career field."
The responsibility, leadership and skills men and women develop while in the service, Hicks said, provide benefit to service members, their families, their communities and the nation.
"It is in our national interest to ensure that younger generations consider public service as a career option," she said.
Hicks challenged attendees at the conference to foster a commitment to public service as a way to ensure the continued strength of U.S. democracy.
"We cannot afford a future of disconnection, a future without the firefighters, nurses, teachers, public servants and service members we need to advance the common good," Hicks said. "We should all consider how we're going to leave the world a better place than we found it. That's my charge to you, and I need your help. We must amplify the importance of service and its relationship to the health of our democracy. And I am confident that this renewed call will be answered if it is heard."