WASHINGTON (AP) -- While some Republicans blame the COVID-19 vaccine or "wokeness" for the Army's recruiting woes, the military service says the bigger hurdles are more traditional ones: Young people don't want to die or get injured, deal with the stress of Army life and put their lives on hold.
They "just don't see the Army as something that's relevant," said Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, head of Army marketing. "They see us as revered, but not relevant, in their lives."
Addressing those longtime issues has taken on greater urgency as the Army tries to recover from its worst recruiting year in decades, a situation aggravated by the tight jobs market. The Army is offering new programs, advertising and enticements in an effort to change perceptions and reverse the decline.
One incentive gives recruiters bonuses of up to $4,500 per quarter if they exceed their baseline enlistment requirement. A pilot program allows young enlisted soldiers -- those in the three lower ranks -- to get a promotion if they refer someone who enlists and goes to basic training. Only one promotion per soldier is allowed.
The Army fell about 15,000 soldiers, or 25%, short of its 60,000 recruitment goal last year, when all the branches struggled to meet recruiting goals.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the Army has set a difficult goal for this year: aiming to bring in 65,000 recruits, which would be 20,000 more than in 2022. It's difficult to predict how it will go, she said, adding that recruiters need to do all they can to surpass last year's numbers.
"I would say it is a stretch goal," she said.
Wormuth said she and Gen. James McConville, the Army's chief of staff, believed they needed to set a big goal.
"I think we are seeing some forward momentum. But it is still too early to tell where we will likely land at the end of this fiscal year. I know we will do better than we did last year," she said.
Guiding the Army's efforts are surveys intended to help pinpoint why young people dismiss the Army as a career.
Those surveys were conducted over four months last spring and summer. They involved about 600 respondents, ages 16 to 28, per month. The Army discussed the general findings with The Associated Press but declined to provide detailed methodology, saying the surveys were done by a private research contractor and that licensing agreements limited the public release of some data collection details.
Officials said that based on the surveys, young people simply do not see the Army as a safe place or good career path, and believe they would have to put their lives and careers on hold if they enlisted.
Army leaders said very few say they are deterred from enlisting due to "wokeness." In fact, concerns about discrimination against women and minorities is seen as a bigger issue, along with a more general distrust of the military.
"Wokeness" is a slang term that originally described attentiveness to issues of racial and social justice. Some people and groups, especially conservatives, now use it in a derogatory sense implying what they see as overreactions.
Republicans in Congress, including Rep. Jim Banks, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, have pledged to target "wokeness" this year. Banks, R-Ind., has said "exposing and dismantling the Biden administration's woke agenda that is driving down military recruitment and retention" will be a top priority for him this year. His spokesman, Buckley Carlson, said combating "wokeness" at the Defense Department will be a key issue for the congressman.
Banks and others have complained about the Pentagon's efforts to target extremism in the military, provide courses in critical race theory and other efforts to expand diversity. They say focusing on partisan issues pushed by the left takes away from the Pentagon's core missions, weakens the military and turns off recruits.
But the Army says that on average, only 5% of the respondents in the surveys listed "wokeness" as an issue, compared with 13% who say they believe that women and minorities will face discrimination and not get the same opportunities.
Wormuth said the survey data is a tool to "assuage the concerns that some may have, whether influencers or members of Congress, about wokeness or the vaccine mandate -- which is now rescinded -- and show they are not, by any means, primary drivers of the recruiting challenges we're experiencing."
She said the information from the surveys also provides insight on how the Army needs to better explain its benefits.
Fink, the Army's marketing head, said the top three reasons young people cite for rejecting military enlistment are the same across all the services: fear of death, worries about post-traumatic stress disorder and leaving friends and family -- in that order. He said the Army wanted a better understanding of any additional barriers to service, beyond those top three.
By a "significant margin," he said, the most common response beyond Nos. 1-3 was, "I will be putting my life on hold." That was cited by more than 1 in 5 people surveyed.
Many young people do not know anyone in the Army and are unfamiliar with the jobs or benefits it offers. Fink said trust in government institutions, including the military, has declined, particularly among this group.
"They just don't perceive the Army as being in touch with the modern, everyday culture that they're used to," he said.
Fink said about 10% in the surveys say they do not trust military leadership, based on the way recent events or missions have been handled. That could include the Afghanistan withdrawal or use of the military during racial unrest and protests in the United States.
Other reasons get much smaller mentions. They include concerns about living conditions on military bases, getting assigned to unwanted jobs, the coronavirus vaccine and the "wokeness" issue.
In some cases, those reasons vary by region. But Fink said the "wokeness" issue was pretty consistent -- between 4% and 5% across the nation, without much variance by gender or ethnicity.