Military recruitment is not a topic that has traditionally come up when leaders from military communities engage with leaders at the Department of Defense and the military services. That has changed. Record low unemployment, demographic changes and shifting perceptions of military service have created a recruiting environment that is one of the most challenging since we moved to an all-volunteer force.

It is clear that we can’t just do what we have done in the past. We need new, bold ideas. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said recently that we need to find a way to get out of “the relentless momentum of the status quo, which can no longer be accepted.”

Per capita, defense communities have long been one of the largest sources for recruiting thanks to our military families and the local familiarity that comes from hosting a military base. Military families and defense communities can’t be the sole source of recruitment if we want a healthy force long-term, but we also can’t take them for granted.

The path to boldness in this case might just begin in the communities the military calls home — America’s defense communities. The ideas we see emerging from the 300 communities who make up the Association of Defense Communities, don’t solve every problem, but they come with an unmatched passion for the military, and we think that is a good place to start.

First, let’s make defense communities true partners in recruitment. Our communities embrace the military through big and small actions every day. The positive awareness that creates can lay the groundwork for long-term recruiting success.

Community-led programs like the Career and Technical Education, or CTE, program in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and the cybersecurity and coding program in Little Rock, Arkansas, introduce military life to students in our communities. They are impactful and should be supported and embraced. An investment in expanding these programs to other communities, along with DoD’s youth engagement initiatives such as the Starbase outreach program, could pay dividends now and into the future.

Next, we cannot tackle recruitment without also addressing retention. Our recruitment challenges will continue to grow if we cannot find ways to keep service members in uniform. That means dealing with the quality of life in military communities. If military families can’t find good schools, quality childcare, affordable housing and employment for family members — wherever they are deployed — the likelihood they will leave service grows.

No community can solve these issues alone. The Defense Community Infrastructure Program, or DCIP, Congress created four years ago with our support has been a game-changer in supporting important investments outside the gate, but there is so much more that needs to be done. We must broaden the vision of DCIP to make it a vehicle to enhance the local support services and programs that are critical to service members and their families.

Finally, we need to take the lessons we have learned from defense communities about engagement, awareness and bridging the military-civilian divide and make them available to every community. We need to redirect recruitment dollars to invest in community-based outreach programs across the country that engage our local leaders and veterans, share the positive impacts of the military and build awareness of career opportunities created by service.

Long-term military readiness must be a priority as our nation prepares to address the threats we face. It takes a community to recruit our future service members. If we work as one community, we can make it happen.

Karen Holt is the vice president of the Association of Defense Communities and has played an advocacy role with Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, for almost two decades. Today, as federal installation administrator, she serves as Hartford County’s liaison to APG and more than 155 defense contractors promoting community resources to industry.

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