Since its inception, the United States military has recruited teenagers to enlist.
During the Revolutionary War, when the military was formally established, young men were encouraged to fight for their country voluntarily. During the Civil War, conscription — essentially mandatory military enrollment for men of a certain age — was implemented, initially targeting men age 21 to 30. The draft was later expanded to include men as young as 18, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and continued over centuries as a way to maintain a base of military servicepeople. In a statement to Teen Vogue, Lisa M. Ferguson, media relations chief for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said, “The Army seeks qualified individuals 17 [to] 34 years old.”
Since the draft ended in 1973, the military has relied on an all-volunteer service and has targeted young people, using strategies that include placing recruiters in schools. This is allowed because the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, requires military recruiters be granted the same access in schools as college recruiters.
The military markets to teenagers, particularly those in poorer school districts, because the armed services need a large population, and the sooner young people join, the more likely they are to stay and build a career. (According to the government, “184,000 personnel must be recruited into the Armed Forces each year to replace those who complete their commitment or retire.”) Modern-day recruiters sell the idea of an experience that often resonates more with poorer students because, for many, service can mean a free ride to college and/or a path to citizenship.
The majority of today’s teenagers, however, aren’t interested in joining the military: According to a 2017 poll conducted by the Department of Defense, only 14% of respondents age 16 to 24 said it was likely they’d serve in the military in the next few years.
As enrollment drops, recruiters are finding new ways to market the military favorably to teenagers. For example, the Army recently began recruiting through video game tournaments in hopes of connecting with young people, according to Stars and Stripes. This strategy was announced after the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal for the first time in 13 years — during which time the Iraq War was underway — according to The New York Times.
Kate Connell, a coordinator for Truth in Recruitment, tells Teen Vogue that for an October visit to California’s Santa Maria High School, the Army brought an old military truck equipped with a virtual reality helicopter game. She said a recruiter was on site to input students’ personal information into an iPad, “including their citizenship status, their GPA, what grade, their email.” (When asked whether the Army asks potential recruits about their citizenship, an Army spokesperson provided a list of questions the Army does ask its recruits; citizenship was not on the list.) The same recruiter, Connell adds, asked students about their career interests and mentioned college scholarships that the military provides to some enlistees.
“[Students are] participating in something that’s about the military, that glamorizes the military, [that] makes it sort of a game,” Connell says. She believes that the military’s collection of students’ personal information is the “main purpose” of their campus visits: to get leads. These recruiters also rely on programs for teenagers, such as the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) and U.S. Army Partnership for Youth Success.