America Celebrates 50 Years of Volunteer Force, But Faces Tough Recruiting Environment

U.S. Marine recites the oath of enlistment
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Tanner Hughs recites the oath of enlistment during his reenlistment ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, June 22, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alize Sotelo)

It was 1966 when Paul White, then an 18-year-old from Texas, said officers visited the young men in his high school class and told them during an assembly they had been drafted to fight in Vietnam.

"You didn't know what it's like; you don't know what you got to do," White, now a 76-year-old Army veteran living in Kansas, recalled to in a phone interview. "All you can do is hope they train you right."

Saturday, July 1, marks the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force in the American military when officials did away with the draft, lotteries and conscripting young men into the service. And some Vietnam veterans, such as White, remember the uncertainty and shock that came with having your number called on television or receiving a letter in the mail.

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According to data from the Selective Service System, more than 16 million Americans have been inducted, another term for drafted, into service for World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

"The last man inducted entered the U.S. Army on June 30, 1973 during the last draft conducted," the Selective Service System said on its website.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement on Friday that the transition from conscription to volunteerism was a bold step, one that no other military of similar capabilities had ever taken on.

"Over the past five decades, our military has recruited and retained patriotic and talented personnel from all walks of American life, resulting in a more professional and effective Joint Force," Austin said in a statement. "Today, America's All-Volunteer Force is the strongest military in human history, and it sets the global standard for military professionalism."

On Friday morning, first lady Jill Biden appeared at a graduation ceremony at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, where she commemorated the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force and praised the young Marines for their choice to serve.

"The choice to be part of this community will shape you in so many ways, will forge and form the path of your life," Biden said. "And that choice is the foundation of our national security, the heart of our strength in times of war and peace."

But fewer and fewer Americans have been making the choice to serve over the last 50 years, and the anniversary of all-volunteer forces comes amid the toughest military recruiting environment in decades, where the services are struggling to connect with younger generations and convince them to pursue a life in the service.

The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines all missed or barely scraped by to meet their recruiting goals last year.

Officials have pointed to numerous factors that have contributed to the shortfalls, including that the U.S. has seen some of its lowest unemployment rates in more than 50 years. Additionally, the Pentagon has released studies showing that only 23% of American youth are eligible to serve due to being overweight, using drugs or having mental and physical health problems.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall spoke with the Center for a New American Security, a nonprofit thank tank focused on the military, on June 22 during an event about the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force. He recalled being in the Army after graduating from West Point in 1971, where he overlapped with the final contracts of some drafted service members.

"Generally speaking, there were people who didn't want to be there and were putting up with it while they had to and couldn't wait to get out," Kendall recalled. "It was an impact on morale ... Fast-forward 50 years and we have an incredibly professional force, very dedicated force, people who all want to be there."

White said he was assigned to the 25th Medical Infantry and was stationed in Vietnam for a year. Thinking back on what he saw and what he experienced, he told that the country is likely better off without the draft.

"I probably wouldn't have went to Vietnam," White said when asked if he would have volunteered if the draft didn't exist back in the 1960s. "They don't want to go in the jungle and fight for their life."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Military Draft

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