The U.S. military is facing a major recruiting shortfall. Army rolls fell in 2022 by about 15,000 soldiers — or 25% — short of its 60,000 recruitment goal. It wasn’t alone: None of the military’s branches are making the numbers the Pentagon has set to build the sort of force policymakers envision.
But as the Pentagon struggles to look for recruits around the country, students continue to enroll in Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at the University of Hawaii where the Army, Air Force and Navy all have active programs on campus.
The Navy’s program launched in 2021 and began training Marine midshipmen in 2022, officially putting UH among the colleges to host an ROTC program for each military branch that has one. The Army program, which has been at UH for over 100 years, has about 130 cadets enrolled and training in the “Warrior Battalion.”
“We are trending upward from the past few years, but it has been as high as 150 to 160 in the past,” said Lt. Col. Jerrod Melander, professor of military science, who oversees the program.
ROTC cadets pursue a regular academic major as full-time students but also attend classes on military professional development, morning physical training and occasional field training exercises. Those who receive scholarships get their tuition paid for and are under contract to serve as officers in return.
Cadet Carlos Betancourt, a senior at UH, grew up in a military family. A self-described “Army brat,” he said he moved around a bit when he was young, but most of his life — 15 years — has been spent on Oahu living in Ewa Beach. As the son of a retired Army officer, he said he never doubted what he would do after high school.
“A lot of my life was kind of geared towards, you know, ‘One day, hopefully, son, you can be an officer, too,’” Betancourt said.
He considered attending one of the country’s military academies but ultimately opted to stay on Oahu and attend UH.
“I kind of found it important to get like all aspects of life instead of being secluded off at an academy having nothing but military doctrine kind of thrown your way for a good four years,” Betancourt said. “Staying home, being able to get my degree here while also doing the Army route was something that was important to me.”
That hasn’t prevented him from pursuing every military opportunity he could. He’s attended training on the mainland, graduating from the Army’s Airborne and Air Assault schools. After commissioning as a lieutenant in May, Betancourt will join the Army’s Medical Corps and hopes to become a medevac pilot.
This year marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon ended the draft at the height of the Vietnam War’s unpopularity. Ever since then America has relied on an all-volunteer military in both war and peacetime. Those who join do so for varied reasons.
Many are following a family tradition of military service. Some join for the promise of adventure. Others join for the money.
Cadet Mia Ruiz is a junior at UH. Her father served in the Marines, and many of her uncles also served. She said she was young when her father deployed, and didn’t personally experience much of the military life growing up. A Native Hawaiian, Ruiz saw attending UH and getting the Army to pay for it as an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I always wanted to leave the house and be more independent and travel, and I wanted to learn more about my culture here,” said Ruiz.
She hopes to become an Army physical therapist after graduation and is interning at Tripler Army Medical Center.
“I would say my family’s very Army-influenced,” said Gwenivere Neth, a senior who will become an officer working with armored vehicles after she commissions in May. Her grandfather was an elite Green Beret, her father is in the Hawaii National Guard and many other family members served.
Neth grew up in American Samoa and moved to Hawaii when she was young. She said the ROTC program has “made me come out of my shell.”
“I was a follower; I wasn’t the type of person to stand out or make the first move,” she said. “But coming here, it has pushed me to that limit to become that kind of leader. … I would have to be out of my comfort zone to accomplish some tasks and missions, even with people I didn’t know or hadn’t met before.”
A study of recruiting demographics by the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation found that in 2003, Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians, joined the U.S. Army at a rate 249% higher than the general U.S. population. The same study also found that wealthier Americans were as a group less likely to choose military service.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t really have a lot of options,” said Cadet Timothy Catingub, a senior. Born in the Philippines, his family moved to Wahiawa and shared a home with three other families.
He said everyone in his family has struggled to lift themselves out of poverty and that without the Army there’s no way he would have been able to afford college. Catingub will join the Medical Corps after graduation, and said he’s excited to work in hospital administration, a field he hopes to continue in when his military commitment ends.
“This is a great way for me to, you know, kind of break a generational cycle,” he said. “I’m more willing to try new things and willing to push myself in ways that I never thought I would be able to do.”
Military recruiters often are accused of targeting poor communities, but in the past decade, even recruitment in low-income areas has dropped sharply as health issues and lack of education render many potential recruits ineligible for military duty.
Senior military leaders have begun to openly discuss unhealthy diets, lack of exercise and low grades among America’s youth as becoming national security concerns, with some retired generals and admirals advocating boosts in education funding. The Pentagon estimates that more than three-quarters of American youth don’t meet the minimum physical or educational requirements for military service.
Perhaps more to the point, American attitudes on military service have changed after a half-century of leaders relying on an all-volunteer force to fight America’s wars. Fewer than 1% of Americans actually served during the past two decades even as sprawling post-9/11 conflicts saw troops deploy to multiple conflict zones, often simultaneously.
A 2015 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics of Americans age 18 to 29 found that while 60% of people interviewed supported sending U.S. combat troops to fight ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, 62% said they themselves would “definitely not” join the military, and another 23% said they would “probably not” sign up.
In a February interview with The Associated Press, Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, the Army’s head of marketing, said young people “see us as revered, but not relevant, in their lives.”
“This war is not over for millions of people in Afghanistan and the U.S.,” Army veteran Aidan Gunderson told Congress during hearings earlier this month. “Thoughts of those two weeks have plagued my mind since coming home. I see the faces of all the people we could not save — all the people we left behind.”
The pentagon now considers the Pacific to be its top-priority theater as tensions simmer with China. But as military planners look to the future, the legacy of past wars and current scandals have cast a shadow. A 2022 Gallup Poll found the public’s trust in the military had dropped 8% in just two years from 72% in 2020 to 64% in 2022.
In Hawaii the fallout from the 2021 contamination of the Navy’s drinking water system by jet fuel from its World War II-era Red Hill fuel storage facility has soured military leaders’ relations with many local and military families alike. After initially resisting a state emergency order, the Pentagon is working to drain the tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water.
“I think it’s important to realize that there is a stigma in Hawaii that the military is this thing that just comes and destroys and takes over,” said Catingub. “Growing up as a kid, I just thought it was completely like a war-fighting function, that’s it. If you wanted action or if you wanted stuff like that adrenaline, then you would join the military.”
He said he’s become more familiar with the role the military has played in responding to natural disasters and in the other opportunities it has offered students like himself. Catingub said it’s the duty of future military leaders to set an example that service members and civilians alike can trust.
Cadet Kelvin Anosan is a UH junior who, like Catingub, immigrated from the Philippines. He originally enlisted in the Army, serving six years before enrolling in college in hopes of continuing his service as an officer. He said he joined the military to break out of his “cultural bubble” within his immigrant community and hoped to see the world and become a better, stronger version of himself.
Anosan said he got what he wanted: He made friends from all walks of life, got into shape and gained confidence. But he also had an epiphany about military service.
“One of the things I realized is that I can actually do a lot of those things on my own,” he said. “Like I could have been physically stronger without having to enter the military, I could have gotten out of the cultural bubble.”
He said that what keeps him wanting to pursue a military career is doing it alongside others and giving back to his adoptive country.
“Serving, it’s not really about yourself,” he said. “It not about trying to be better than anybody else.”
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