PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The U.S. military is having trouble recruiting young people, and the problem will grow even more serious unless something is done — and soon — say two Catholic chaplains.
Father Mark Bristol and Father Donelson Thevenin are chaplains in the U.S. Navy — Father Bristol at a base in Spain and Father Thevenin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz — and both men expressed concern for the future.
“We are seeing a crisis. We are not getting the young people and that is a problem,” Father Thevenin said. “It is true that our military branches are facing some challenges,” Father Bristol agreed.
Even the chaplaincy is not immune. The Navy has only 43 Catholic chaplains in its ranks, according to Father Bristol. In 2013, there were 52. There are only 223 Catholic chaplains in the entire military, he added. Twenty years ago, there were more than 400.
But both priests also said they are confident the military can reverse the downward trend.
The Army fared the worst among the military branches, missing its recruitment goal for fiscal year 2022 by 25%, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Fiscal year 2022 began on Oct. 1, 2021, and ended on Sept. 30, 2022.
The other branches didn’t fare much better. The Coast Guard fell 20% short of its recruitment goal. And while the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps technically met their goals for fiscal year 2022, officials told the House Armed Services Committee at an April 19 hearing that they do not expect to meet their goals for fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30.
For fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Army signed approximately 45,000 new recruits; the Navy signed 33,442; the Marines saw 28,608 newcomers; the Air Force welcomed 26,177, and the Coast Guard had approximately 2,800.
According to usafacts.org, there are currently 1.3 million people serving in the U.S. military, 39% fewer than in 1987.
Several reasons have been cited for the recent downward trend.
Among them: a tight labor market that allows young people to have their pick of jobs (leaving the military as less of an option), COVID-19 shutdowns that closed off military recruitment visits to high schools and college campuses, and a sedentary lifestyle that makes it difficult for young people to meet the military’s physical requirements.
Father Thevenin sees other factors at work. “During COVID, the Department of Defense had a vaccine requirement. But there were people who did not wish to be vaccinated. There are young people who would have loved to be in the military but when they heard they had to get the vaccine, they said no,” he explained.
The military’s zero tolerance policy on drugs is another factor, Father Thevenin said. “In our society, we have a drug problem,” he said. “There are also mental health challenges. The military is very stressful. And some cannot handle the stress.”
Father Bristol pointed to another factor. He noted that statistically, less than 1% of the country’s population currently serves in the military. And that can lead to a self-perpetuating decrease in recruits, he explained. “What is lacking today is that most people do not personally know someone who served in the military. It is difficult for people to relate,” he said.
However, there are solutions, according to both chaplains.
“We can turn this thing around,” Father Bristol said. “We need positive exposure so it’s not such a mystery to people. People think, ‘Being in the military is scary. I don’t think I could do it.’ We have to let people know they can do it.”
Father Thevenin, who was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 2001, was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2005. He was released from the diocese by Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio in 2012 to become a priest of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA, which is based in Washington D.C. He was promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander in 2021.
By the time Father Mark Bristol was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2016, he had already served 14 years in the Navy, having enlisted in 2002. He became a chaplain in 2019.
Father Thevenin contended that the military needs to take a good, long look at its recruitment policies. “Right now, where do you see the military except during natural disasters? They’ve got to be a physical presence. They should be there at every high school and college graduation,” he said.
If young people are exposed to the military, “and if they see the uniform, they will want to join,” Father Thevenin predicted. “Young people do want structure in their lives.”