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The Marine Corps is not struggling with recruiting and this may be due to its unique nature

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Marine Corps boot camp graduation Parris Island

Military recruiting is facing a crisis with most branches failing to make their recruiting goals in 2022 or having to tap into their pools of delayed-entry applicants to do so.

Yet, somehow for the 2023 fiscal year that ends in October, whereas most services still struggle, the Marine Corps seems to have easily attracted enough recruits.

Recruitment woes

Many reasons are to blame for declining recruit numbers in the military. First, alternative career paths have become more enticing for young men and women due to significant pay increases across the economy and the ability to work remotely. To attract recruits, some services have returned to offering bonuses to potential recruits – although the bonuses are nothing like they were during the GWOT.

Second, perceptions of the military are becoming worse, with young people increasingly believing that serving in the military will cause them physical or emotional damage.

Third, fewer applicants can meet the military’s standards nowadays. Physical standards have become tougher to meet with reportedly more applicants being disqualified due to obesity and other factors.

marines physical training
U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Joshua P. Hays, a communications strategy and operations officer with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force, executes a pistol belt drag with Maj. Andrew T. Macon, an artillery officer with the 13th MEU, I MEF, during a unit physical training event at Camp Pendleton Calif., September 6, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. A. J. Van Fredenberg)

Additionally, recruits must have a clean mental health slate, which sounds great, but we are way more aware of mental illnesses these days, so we do have more diagnoses but the military still acts like it’s the 1970s in terms of dealing with mental illness. Make no mistake, certain mental health conditions should disqualify recruits, but many applicants are disqualified for fairly mundane conditions. 

The educational standards are also proving tough to meet. COVID shutdowns set kids back educationally to a very real degree and applicants are passing the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) at lower levels than ever before.

Highlighting these difficulties, in May 2022, then Army Chief of Staff General James McConville testified before Congress saying that only 23% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 would be qualified to serve in the military today.

To tackle these recruiting challenges, the Army has launched programs to help potential recruits meet ASVAB and physical fitness scores and the Navy has created exceptions to certain ASVAB failures. 

Related: Country music star Craig Morgan re-enlists in the Army to boost recruitment

The reasons for the Marine Corps’ success

Marine Corps recruiter Staff Sgt. Christopher Giannetti, with Recruiting Substation Naples, Recruiting Station Fort Lauderdale, Fla., speaks with a prospective Marine about opportunities and benefits during a follow-up interview, June 12, 2013. Giannetti has made 15 Marines during his time as a canvasing recruiter, two of whom became platoon honor graduates during boot camp. (Photo by Sgt. Scott Schmidt/6th Marine Corps District)

The Marine Corps states that it only picks the best and the brightest Marines to be recruiters. They pick enterprising young Marines for the role and train them well. At the same time, the Marine Corps needs fewer people to meet its recruiting goal. For comparison, in 2023, the Corps needed 33,000 recruits, while the Army needed over 65,000 – although the Corps also had about half the number of recruiters than the Army.

Yet, it’s more than that. Joining the American military is an emotional decision as much as it is a logical one. Joining a branch creates a sense of pride and accomplishment and a feeling of belonging. Each branch offers a diverse career field and numerous benefits and there are many reasons why someone would pick a branch over the others. I can’t say why people join the other branches, but I might be able to guess why they join the Marines.

The Marine Corps takes great pride in its history, its battles won, and its culture. Being a Marine is the reason you join the Marines. People who join the Marine Corps hear that the Marine boot camp is the hardest, and in their minds, they can’t ever purposefully take the easier road. Many recruits aren’t joining for what the Marine Corps offers: they are joining to become a Marine. 

Related: US Marines reveal their rules for the Robot Wars

Marine Corps WWI recruiting poster
A World War I-era Marine Corps recruiting poster. (Creative Commons)

The Marine Corps has never been heavy on bonuses, and General Eric Smith, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, summed it up well by saying, “Your bonus is that you get to call yourself a Marine. That’s your bonus… there’s no dollar amount that goes with that.”

This is also reflected in the way the Marine Corps advertises compared to the other branches. The other branches seem to advertise themselves as career fields not too unlike the average civilian job: they appeal to the need to serve as well as to acquire job skills and education. They often tailor their campaigns to the modern world, as much as possible, and show that everyone has a place in their specific branch. 

The Marine Corps doesn’t do that. The Marine Corps is not promising you anything.

Related: What exactly is MARSOC, the Marines’ elite special operations component?

We don’t promise you a rose garden 

A classic Marine Corps recruitment poster. (U.S. Marine Corps)

Marine Corps commercials are easily the coolest. They never make it about the individual but about the Marine Corps as a whole. Who you are doesn’t matter: it’s what you can be that matters, and what you can be is a Marine.

The Corps’ Full Circle recruiting commercial, which came out last year, shows that even after you’re out of the service, you’re a still a Marine.

The Battle to Belong commercial, likewise from 2022, shows that the Marines offer you purpose and a place. It also shows very clearly what the Marine Corps is all about, which is winning battles and killing the enemies of the United States. That doesn’t appeal to everyone as a career field, but it appeals to the people the Marine Corps wants to recruit. 

No one knows where a fighting spirit comes from, why some have it, and some don’t, but the Marine Corps chases the people who possess such a spirit and who already have that inkling to do something greater than themselves. 

Marines are different 

The joint publication Noncommissioned Officer and Petty Officer of the United States Armed Forces describes the various forces of the U.S. military, their purpose, and capabilities. When talking about the Marine Corps it starts by saying that “Marines are different.” 

That’s why the Marine Corps can find enough recruits: it is different. People have tried to sell me things my entire life, and I’m betting that’s the same for most younger folks these days. The Marine Corps didn’t try to sell me anything. They offered me an opportunity to prove myself to them and to become something more. That’s what the Marine Corps offers, and there are plenty of young people out there who want to take that offer.

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.