Seventeen years of war, TV spots depicting the struggles of wounded warriors, and curbs on military advertising budgets have left the armed forces with an image problem that could take years to repair, said a senior defense official.
Unsettling myths about the military are rising among recruit-age youths and "influencers" - parents, teachers, clergy and coaches - in part because increasingly they have no personal or family ties to the armed forces, said Lernes "Bear" Hebert, acting deputy assistant secretary for military personnel policy.
"While there is great support for military service men and women, we do find that misperceptions about service have taken a toll on propensity to serve. And because we're not out there offering a contrary message, we're seeing a decline that is most troubling."
He cited various recent survey results that show a majority of recruit-age youths and influencers perceive service life negatively. Many also are surprisingly unaware of key attractions, including robust GI Bill education benefits to earn college degrees and skills training that support satisfying civilian careers.
For example, 63 percent of youths ages 16 to 24 believe it is "likely" or "very likely" that a person leaving the military today has psychological or emotional problems.
The same survey found 61 percent of youths believe it likely or very likely someone getting out of service today will have difficulty readjusting to everyday life.
Absent other information, Hebert said, the public has no way to put in context the many ads they see soliciting donations to support injured veterans.
He cited survey results showing that, in 2004, 85 percent of youths 16-21 thought it "extremely likely" that joining the military would allow them to earn money for college. By fall 2016, the proportion who knew that had fallen to 60 percent.
It is worrisome when recruit-age youths aren't being told at school or home about one of the most significant benefits they can realize from military service, Hebert said.
"We really need to do something to educate prospective recruits that you can have a pretty good quality of life and a great [education benefit] on leaving service after one term."
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