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What Does Military Service Look Like for a Gen Z Soldier?

As struggling recruiters scramble to understand memes and neck tattoos, two active duty service members give us their view of being 22 and in uniform

“It’s been the best-worst thing I’ve ever done.”

That’s how Alex, a 22-year-old volunteer infantryman, sums up his past year as an enlisted Marine. He’s currently aboard a ship sailing past islands somewhere far off in the world. “Not supposed to be on my phone right now haha,” Alex (a pseudonym) texts me after apologizing for what he thinks might be rushed responses to my questions about life as a Gen Z soldier deployed in combat. His general view, though: “The people suck in the corps, and sometimes the higher-ups are complete trash,” he says. “But every now and then, you meet a few guys who turn all that around.”

As for why the people suck? “You’re a pent-up, caged dog,” he explains in short text message bursts. “Makes for a more lethal fighter.” It might sound like hyperbole, but as I would later find out, just a few weeks prior to our conversation, Alex had spent 12 hours pointing a 50-caliber machine gun at five boats during a lengthy standoff with the Iranian Navy — clearly, a certain amount of aggressive dedication is required. “I’m back [home] in 27 days,” he tells me via text. “Can’t wait to get off this damn boat lol.”

Ironically, the military itself, currently deep in the midst of a recruiting crisis, is desperately trying to persuade young prospective soldiers and their influencers (the military term for parents and others in a young person’s life that impact their willingness to join) that the military is about far more than the typical violent or traumatic Hollywood depictions of what it’s like to be a soldier.

“There’s the idea that movies like The Hurt Locker and Black Hawk Down, that you’re either going to have that sort of glamorous, high-octane thing or you’re going to have something that’s just terrifying like the documentary Restrepo,” Staff Sergeant Tristan Ellingsworth, a recruiting commander for the Army, tells me over the phone. “A common leading question, whether it’s from a young man or woman sitting at the desk with me, or a parent coming in and fact-checking is, will I deploy? Will I go to a combat zone? Am I going to lose a limb? I mean, these things are very tangible, very visible results of being part of an Army who is tasked with fighting and winning the nation’s wars.”

Fighting and winning the nation’s wars may prove more difficult in the near future, however, considering the latest generation of young people — and those who influence their decisions — aren’t even considering the military as a viable career option. “According to U.S. Army Recruiting Command, there are 33.4 million Americans ages 17 to 24, the Army’s prime demographic for enlisting and commissioning,” reports Army Times. “But there’s one hitch: When you whittle that number down for standards, quality and interest? Only about 136,000 are left.”

Making matters worse is that, for the first time since the height of the Iraq War nearly 13 years ago, the Army fell thousands of recruits short of its goal in 2018. “The Army hoped to bring in about 76,500 new soldiers this year,” reported the New York Times last September. “But with the fiscal year ending this month, it is still 6,500 troops short, even after spending an extra $200 million on bonuses and lowering standards to let in more troops with conduct or health issues.”

While lowering standards may seem like a desperation move, it’s worth taking a moment to consider some of the existing standards in the context of Gen Z’s values. Emma Moore, who studies Army recruiting at the Center for a New American Security, a research institute in Washington, tells me that although prospective soldiers can request waivers, the Army’s many, stringent disqualifying factors can make it difficult for recruiters to get an interested young person to the point where they’re in basic training. Tattoos, for example, are disqualifying if they’re in certain places. “Anything that shows above the neck — they’ve kind of eased the restrictions and it changes across the services, but basically, where it’s shown can be disqualifying. Or you have to get a waiver that says it’s okay for you to join even with this tattoo,” says Moore.

Obesity is also a huge problem for the military, along with previous medical issues like eczema. More surprising, though — especially considering the more enlightened target demographic — is the fact that any mental health issues that led to a person seeking therapy or help from a psychologist are also disqualifiers. “Again, they’ve been trying to ease up on some of those,” says Moore. “But I think at first instance it’s disqualifying. For most things you can get a waiver that says, ‘Yes, it’s okay,’ but that builds in the fact that somebody needs to look at your application and say, ‘Yeah, this isn’t actually a problem for us.’ If it’s, my parents divorced and I needed to go to therapy for a couple months because I was upset, somebody will look at that — a medical professional in the military — and say, ‘This isn’t going to be a problem. You aren’t going [to therapy] because of self harm or suicidal tendencies,’ which are also disqualifying.”

Two other disqualifying factors affecting the military’s candidate pool: Drug use and education. “A lot of states now have decriminalized or legalized marijuana, which means that people who, although it’s legal for them within their state, because it’s not federally approved, it’s disqualifying for them to have used illegal drugs,” says Moore. “And inability to complete high school education is also disqualifying.”

All of which explains why the latest data from the Pentagon indicates that about 71 percent of young people are ineligible to serve, due to the very, very long list of disqualifying factors.

Beyond this, a more pressing reason recruiting numbers are down, according to Moore, is the growing number of young people who have no personal connection to the military. “Pew Research Center has some good data on the increasing division between society and the military in terms of the number of individuals who have a family member or friend who is serving or has served,” Moore says. “The percentage of young people who have no connection to the military is growing, and I’d argue the depictions in the media and Hollywood don’t help perceptions.”

Those meaningful connections really matter, especially when it comes to family. Take Jason (again, a pseudonym), for example, a 22-year-old infantry officer in the Army who followed in his father’s footsteps and attended West Point straight out of high school. As a West Point graduate, his path toward becoming a soldier has been considerably different to the enlisted soldiers he commands. “You have people that know that they’re probably not gonna do so hot in college and they want an opportunity for an education,” he says. “You got people that are trying to get out of a bad situation in the neighborhoods they grew up in, you got people that are, maybe their older brother was in the Army and he deployed and was like, ‘Yeah, this is cool.’”

Jason, for his part, was defiantly anti-West Point until he was applying to colleges. “I was like, ‘I wanna do something different, I want to be my own person,’” he says. “But as I got to know my dad’s friends more, and as I got to see them more and the caliber of person they were, I was looking at regular colleges and then obviously, how could I not think about West Point at least a little bit when I finally started seriously considering schools?”

Only a first grader when 9/11 occurred, Jason — who mostly just remembers the event because “everyone was crying” — sums up his motivation for attending West Point and serving in the military as a combination of “boyish curiosity” and his father’s stories from Vietnam that “weren’t always happy.” “Obviously he didn’t talk about it very much, but when I did hear about it, I listened with a little bit of reverence, so I understood that,” he says. “I’d say that there’s definitely a part of everyone who joins the military that’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s essentially, you know, the little boy in you wonders what combat would be like, I guess.”

Recruiter Ellingsworth, to his credit, understands that there are a variety of factors that might still motivate a young person to serve in the Army. “On one hand, you will get the people who, they’re excited by the adrenalin and they’re intrigued by the danger and the risk involved,” he says. “Then on the other hand, you’ll get people who, that’s not what draws them to the life of service.”

Which is why he’s not interested in selling young people on a false notion of military life. “Honestly, the way that most of us approach communicating with this generation, it comes down to honesty and transparency,” he says. “I know those are kind of generic words, but my experience has been that the best way to talk about what this lifestyle looks like and what a young person might be getting into is to take off the veneer of like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be awesome!’ What I’ve found to be effective, and what a lot of the recruiters at my old station in Santa Clarita found very effective, is talking candidly and honestly about the good and the bad.”

Still, with recruiting numbers down, the military as a whole seems to be scrambling to figure out how best to promote itself to a generation of men and women who have never seriously contemplated a military career. “Assuming that there’s a comprehensive strategy that looks at a multi-tiered approach, my criticism would be that the military and the Army specifically recruit for this year and doesn’t look at long-term strategic goals,” says Moore.

There does at least seem to be a desire to try new things, as the military writ large is adopting several different marketing campaigns specifically designed to entice Gen Z to join their ranks. Last year, for the first time in 30 years, the Marine Corps aired an ad during the Super Bowl, using an online-only spot to target a young, tough, tech-savvy audience for potential recruits looking for a challenge. “The high-powered, battle-heavy, 30-second ad shows Marines deploying from ships in amphibious vehicles, dropping bombs from aircraft and hurling a shoulder-launched drone into the air,” reported Marine Times.

And just last month, the New York Times reported that the Army is scaling back ads on network sports broadcasts in favor of targeted ads on Facebook and Twitch, Amazon’s live-streaming gaming platform. “Recruiters will soon be required, not just encouraged, to post on Instagram,” per the same report.

Moore sees the social media approach to recruiting as a way to help spread awareness amongst prospective Gen Z candidates, which she suggests is a more effective way of outreach than recruiters on the ground. “So they’re on Instagram, they’re on Snapchat,” she says. “The data shows that young people don’t know what military service is or looks like, and therefore, they don’t consider it. So I think sheer exposure is always better because the point is to say, this is something you can consider.”

It’s fair to guess, of course, that to the irony-drenched members of Gen Z, some of these “fellow kids” attempts might come off as self-parody. The Army’s most recent attempt at a viral campaign to help increase exposure, for example, was a music video released earlier this month featuring Army recruiters rapping about all the benefits that come along with service. “In a three-minute, Army-produced music video released Friday, Army recruiters Sgt. 1st Class Arlondo Sutton and Sgt. 1st Class Jason Locke rap about their Army experiences as clips flash showing soldiers in action — preparing to jump for a plane, fast-roping out of an airborne helicopter, toting M4 and sniper rifles and handling military police dogs,” reports Stars and Stripes. The video — which is clearly inspired by the internet-aged production of SoundCloud rappers, Cardi B and Migos — is arguably the Army’s most shameless attempt yet to broaden their reach via Gen Z’s assumed musical tastes.

While Ellingsworth acknowledges that some of his colleagues prefer using platforms like Twitch “by virtue of their own interest connected to that environment,” and have been successful communicating with Gen Z using memes, he says that he still has success chatting face-to-face with potential recruits, where he can explain about how serving in the Army can help support them in pursuit of their passions. “Generally in those conversations, I will draw the parallel that, while as a scout and in a physically and technically demanding career field, in my personal time I paint and sculpt; I write music and I like going camping and taking my wife out on dates. I love playing with my dog. I have these very tangible, very real, very human things that I love doing, and they aren’t diminished or shoved to the side because of what I do professionally,” he explains. “Usually when you tell these young people like, you can do this and move toward this goal and you don’t have to shelve what it is that you love, that usually breaks down a lot of barriers.”

Perhaps surprisingly for what sounds like a line from a recruiter, the experiences of the Gen Z soldiers I spoke to bears this out. Alex — who tells me that he joined the Marine Corps not for the post-service benefits, but for the chance to “face our countries adversaries in combat as an infantryman [sic]”— spends his personal time producing music. “I have a lot of downtime on the ship,” he says. “I have gotten a lot done here musically cause there’s just about nothing to do on this rust bucket ahah.” In fact, he’s nearly finished the instrumentals of his album, heavily inspired by his favorite band, Nine Inch Nails (who he considers to be “the best”) and other artists like Hans Zimmer, David Bowie, Muse, Interpol and Pink Floyd.

Jason — not confined to the limitations of a Marine Corps ship — prefers to spend his free time doing, “faster paced things.” “Scuba diving was really big for me when I was closer to the ocean, and surprisingly, I’ve found a way into a scuba-diving community that’s incredible,” he says. But to really relax, he also plays the guitar. “I’d probably say my relaxing outlet would be guitar, or like, reading fiction or watching a movie,” he tells me. As for his love life well, Jason says he’s never been on any dating apps. “But I will say that literally, I don’t know one of my friends that doesn’t have multiple,” he says. “And every time we go somewhere, they’re always hitting that up.”

Another thing Jason doesn’t do: Talk about being an officer. “Typically when I go out and I’m trying to meet a civilian girl, I want to know more about her,” he says. “You know, girls like to talk, so I typically try and keep the conversation focused on them.” But part of the reason he doesn’t like to bring it up is because he’s found that, while most people are respectful, some people are “super against the war.” “A lot of times people have a lot of questions,” he says. “Honestly, I think that the Army is kind of like a black box to everybody, and all they know is like, what they see on TV and what they see in the movies.”

While Jason tells me that he doesn’t think it’s right to use his profession to meet girls, he says it’s not uncommon for enlisted soldiers his age to do so. “When you’re around Army bases, there’s girls that are in tune with the community,” he says. “Not a very nice way to say it, basically they’re looking for Army guys, and that’s not the type of girl I want to talk to.” He continues that he’s just not ready to get into a serious relationship right now anyway: “A very common thing is, enlisted people get married really quick,” he says. “It’s something I have to deal with a lot with my guys. They’ll meet a girl, and they’ll get married three months later because she wants the TRICARE or health benefits or whatever. It works for everybody because the dude that’s E4 [Army ranking just above private first class] who lives in the barracks doesn’t want to live in the barracks because his room gets inspected, and if he gets married, he can live off post and whatever. So like, people get married for all the wrong kinds of reasons in the Army.”

He gets it, though. “Specifically for the enlisted population, honestly I hate to say that it does make sense, or at least, I understand where they’re coming from. Because you know, worst case, they get out of the barracks, they enjoy their lives a little bit more, and if it doesn’t work out, they get a divorce.”

But while Jason’s lukewarm dating life seems to be at least in part self-imposed, Alex says that the nature of his line of work has kept him entirely shut out of the game. “It’s a rough lifestyle,” he says. “Some girls don’t find the idea of a guy whose sole job is to kill appealing.” There’s also the fact that he’s currently marooned on a Marine Corps ship somewhere in the ocean, where dating isn’t exactly top of mind.

His first point, though, brings us back to the military’s attempted rebranding of enlisted life. Certainly, to hear the recruiters tell it, killing isn’t anyone’s “sole job,” but Alex responds by pointing out that there are more than 300 jobs in the Marine Corps, only 10 percent of which are combat related, and “I’m in that 10 percent bracket.”

When I ask Ellingsworth how he fields combat-specific questions — “Will I have to kill anyone?” for example — from potential recruits or their families, he again emphasizes that he’s not in the business of painting a false picture of military service. But he also pivots his answer to include the customary martial adage: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “At the end of the day, everybody who wears this uniform raises their right hand and volunteers to serve, which means you’re willing to receive whatever guidance you’re given,” he says. “Sometimes you’re not going to get what you want, and sometimes you’re going to get what you don’t want and that’s something you have to understand walking through the door here.”

So what’s next for these two young men, currently in the thick of their service commitment? For Alex, it’s simple: He’s looking forward to hitting port so he can download some new music on Spotify. “New Tool album, have to get that.” But ultimately, when he gets back home, he wants to record the vocals to accompany the instrumentals he’s been producing during his deployment aboard the ship.

Jason, on the other hand, is more specific about what he doesn’t want to do in the future. “I just know that I can’t really see myself sitting in an office,” he says. “The dream for me is just like, finding something that I’m fired up about doing every day. So right now it’s the Army, and when the Army stops firing me up, I could go be a scuba-diving instructor or something, because I’d be excited about that every day.”

As for the military, it remains to be seen how they will tackle the issue of playing catch up to the ever erratic attention span of their late teen targets. But considering that the hottest marketing departments in the world are often still struggling to effectively sell their brands to millennials, the likelihood of the military being the ones to solve the multibillion-dollar Gen Z question remains, at best, an extraordinarily long shot.