How Military Recruiters Are Targeting Teenagers

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Scary Mommy and Willowpix/Getty

When I was in high school, I thought about going to West Point. I even went so far as to tour the place, but ultimately decided to go to college instead. I was only 16 or 17 years old, and the military recruiters were dangling a free college education in front of a kid who, when the steel mill went on strike, only ate meat because daddy went hunting. I’d just have to serve a few years in the military afterwards, no big deal, I’d get a job in the field I wanted, the possibility of a real career, something sure and guaranteed: no struggle for me, no grad school days of ramen and misery. It sounded like a pretty good deal, but I ultimately said no.

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge and send respect to all who serve (and have served) in the military. You are doing brave work and our nation is indebted to you.

The recruiting tactics I experienced 20 years ago aren’t unusual. In fact, these tactics are standard practice, according to an article in Teen Vogue. The military’s always targeted young people: the media relations chief for the Army recruiting council told Teen Vogue that the Army looks for people starting at age 17 (though 17-year-olds require parental consent, says Seventeen. You can’t legally buy cigarettes at age seventeen, but you can sure as hell sign away eight years of your life to the United States armed forces. says that a 2016 Population Representation in the Military Services Report states 17- to 20-year-old kids make up to a mind-blowing 80% of all personnel in some branches.

SDI Productions/Getty

SDI Productions/GettyBecause of the No Child Left Behind Act, military recruiters have the same access to high schools as college recruiters. Then, says WhoWhatWhy, in 2015, Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes provisos saying that every public high school has to fork over the names of all their seniors — plus their contact info — or they lose their federal funding. So the military recruiters have ready access to high schoolers. But they don’t tend to use it equally. According to Teen Vogue, it seems the military recruiters are disproportionately pushing for kids in low-income schools — kids who may see the military as the only viable option to college, to a career, to travel, to a stable job, to a better life.

Lately, recruiting tactics have included using video games in mobile trucks at high schools — and collecting names and student data while kids play. JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, is supposed to build leadership skills, but also serves as a funnel into the military or college ROTC (hence, the military); and up to $6,000 in signing bonuses (a huge sum when you grow up poor). But the military recruiters know what these kids really want — a way out. And they know the way out is education. Teen Vogue cites a 2017 Department of Defense study that found 49% of teens said that if they joined the military, they’d do it to pay for education.

That’s how military recruiters tried to sell me on the idea.

That’s how military recruiters sold my college buddies on the idea.

That’s how military recruiters sold some of my college students on the idea, too.

But today, The Military Times admits that military recruiters are having trouble meeting their enlistment goals. The vice-chief of Naval Operations has said that, much like the corporate world has changed, “The Navy must adapt to modern personnel policies as well.” So they’re adapting. They’re adapting their recruiting tactics, for starters — and those tactics are specifically targeting teens. According to Army Times, the social media accounts and websites should be adapted to appeal to a “more diverse” audience. They’re using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Military Times also argues that as enlistment goals fail to meet expectations, we need to look at something else: dropping the enlistment age to sixteen.

I didn’t even have my driver’s license until I was almost seventeen.

They point out that younger teens are less likely to have criminal records, which prevent 10% of the 75% of 18-24-year-olds eligible to serve from serving in the military. They say it’s cheaper to “digitally target a younger audience.” Plus, they say that 23% of 16-year-olds show “a propensity towards the military” compared to only 12% of 18-year-olds.

Today’s military recruiters want to convince the low-income kids, with flashy video games, social media, and a constant presence on high school campuses that their best option is the military. And while there are a number of reasons a person might want to go into the military, it’s important that teens know all their options before making such a big decision.