Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks on "Forging Two New Links to the Force of the Future"


Thanks, Cadet Reynolds – and good morning, everybody.

What a beautiful, spectacular place.  Thank you.  Thanks to CCNY for letting me be here this morning.  This is an institution that was founded to educate the sons and daughters of this great city of New York, a city which has given so much to our military over the years as well.

It’s been home of some of the most iconic moments in our military history.  In the months after we declared independence in 1776, we learned here for the first time to fight together as a nation, at the battles of Brooklyn and Harlem Heights and Washington Heights. And in the centuries that followed its birth, it showcased vital elements of our military power – from Civil War iron-clads and World War I and II battleships built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to the servicemembers, ships and airplanes that fill New York’s streets, seaports and skies each Fleet Week. And over the years, in moments of triumph and tragedy alike – whether at ticker-tape parades honoring generals, admirals, astronauts, and veterans, or the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 – this city has been etched into the collective heart and the collective memory of our country and those who defend it. 

Given this history, it’s no surprise that many New Yorkers have contributed to the security of this country – including students of CCNY, such as, Colin Powell, who was a cadet here in the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC – which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, one reason why I’m here – and Colin rose to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Bob Kahn, who co-invented the Internet while working at our Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA; and also the ROTC cadets here today, from across the City University of New York, who will soon be joining the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

We have that force today because of our people. More than anything else, they’re the reason why we’re the best.  But we can’t take that excellence for granted.  And as generations change, and technologies change, labor markets change, it’s my job as Secretary of Defense to build what I call our Force of the Future – to ensure we keep competing for top talent in the years ahead to build a force that’s just as excellent as the men and women serving our country around the world today.  And that’s why I’ve come to CCNY this morning.

America has a lot of strengths, and our future is very bright – our economy is growing, we have world-class universities like this one, and we have the strongest military.  But another strength we have is all of the students here.  That generation is incredibly talented, diverse, it’s innovative, it’s tech-friendly – and many of you are interested in public service, whether in government, schools, non-profits, or volunteering in your community.  But one opportunity many CCNY students, some of you may not have considered, is serving our country by serving in the military – and that’s what I want to talk to you about today:  how we’re not only making military service more attractive, but also a place where you can maximize your talent and skills while doing one of the noblest things a person can do – defend our country and leave a better world for our children.

Shortly after I was sworn as Secretary of Defense, I went to my old high school in Pennsylvania to outline this vision for the Force of the Future.  I told the students there how we in the Pentagon must think outside our five-sided box to make ourselves even better at attracting talent from new generations of Americans.

In the months that followed, I traveled the country, hearing from companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Boeing and more, and also from our own innovative troops and military leaders about what they’re all doing to compete for talent in 21st century, and what we can learn from them to improve our own talent management. And over the last year, we’ve done a lot. I’ve announced four different links to this Force of the Future, and that’s just the beginning – each of these are constantly being updated, and they’re our agenda for making sure that we have and continue to have the finest fighting force.

I announced the first link a year ago this month, creating what I called at that time new on-ramps and new off-ramps – new on-ramps so more people outside of DoD can come in for a while and contribute to our mission, maybe just for one project, maybe just for a time.  And new off-ramps so more people who are in our military can spend some time at a leading university or a leading company, to gain skills that they can bring back into our force to make us better.

The next link focused on increasing retention by supporting military families at the critical time of their life where they’ve proven their worth to us and we’ve invested heavily in them, and that’s the time in which many of them are thinking about having a family. And this may not be top-of-mind for many CCNY students yet, but you should know that the majority of our force is married and families are a big factor when our people decide whether to stick with us or not. We can’t change the fundamentals of military service, but wherever possible, we want to make it easier for our best people to stay. So we’ve expanded maternity and paternity leave, extended childcare hours on base, and we’re offering more military families the possibility of staying in the community where they’re stationed a bit longer before being reassigned in exchange for a few more years of service.

A third link focused on military talent management, especially for officers and how they’re promoted. As some of you may know, our traditions and our systems go back a long way, and it’s a good thing. But because how we do this hasn’t changed much in a long time, in some ways it’s become too rigid – most importantly, for the needs of our military leaders, but also for the career aspirations of our servicemembers. So we’re making it possible to infuse some more flexibility and choice, continuing to make sure that our merit-based promotion system accounts for performance and talent as much as possible.

And most recently, link number four to the Force of the Future focused on civilian talent management. You may not know that while we have over 2 million servicemembers in uniform, we also have 700,000 civilians. These are people who fix our planes, build our ships, staff our wonderful scientific laboratories, and more. And not everyone will choose to serve in uniform and we have critical jobs for people as civilians – there may be some in this room who will apply for them – by directly hiring civilians on college campuses, which we’re now able to do, just made that change, without the long waits for a job offer that make it near impossible of us to be their first choice – as well as by expanding scholarship-for-service programs in science and technology fields, and more.

In addition to all these links, over the last year we also opened all combat positions in all four military services to women, and we also lifted DoD’s ban on transgender servicemembers – all with the goal of being able to draw from 100 percent of America’s population for our all-volunteer force, focusing purely on a person’s willingness and ability to serve our country and contribute to our mission. And we’ve doubled down on our pledge to help our servicemembers transition to veteran status when they move on to whatever’s next for them in life, so that they can succeed in every way possible.

All this is necessary to help us compete for top talent in the future, but it’s not sufficient.  Today our military and our troops are popular, and they’re widely supported by the American people – and I very much appreciate that, because I remember a time when it was different.  But because of all the success of the all-volunteer force – it is because we don’t use a draft anymore, we haven’t for 40 years – many Americans have become less familiar with us.  Indeed, in surveys and focus groups we run, almost half of young Americans tell us they have little or no knowledge about military service. And this may be related to trends we’ve been seeing recently in military recruiting, both in terms of where our recruits come from, and also where their parents served – whether their parents served.

Geographically, first, our military’s recruiting pool is shrinking. More and more of our people coming from fewer and fewer states. Today, young Americans from rural areas are two times more likely to join the military than young Americans from urban areas. And 40 percent of those who join the military come from just six states, including New York. Most of our officers come from northern states, while the vast majority of our enlisted force comes from southern states.  At the moment, military recruiting tends to be most successful in the South, the Southwest, Big Sky Country, and most difficult in the Northeast.  That’s paradoxical, since the Northeast is among the regions with the highest percentage of young Americans who have the qualifications to serve.  So these geographic gaps represent an opportunity – a great opportunity for us – to draw talent from places where we haven’t been.

At the same time, the military is also starting to resemble something of a family business, as those with a parent who served in uniform are almost twice as likely to join the military as those whose didn’t. Now, to be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – following in the footsteps of one parent, one’s parents, or grandparents is a long and noble tradition in the military. And here, it may be happening because people are having positive experiences in the military and their kids see it as something that may be good for them, too.  And all that’s good.   But it also means that there are talented kids out there who would make great servicemembers, but they don’t have a parent showing them this opportunity.

Consider that in terms of pure numbers, less than 1 percent of America’s population serves in uniform – from my generation and my parent’s generation, three-in-four [had a] family member [who had] served in the military. For your generation, it’s-one in three. So unless someone has a friend or a family member who’s serving, they are most likely to see our military in movies like American Sniper, or video games like Call of Duty, or TV commercials featuring wounded warriors or troops coming home. And while all these images are somewhat true, they’re only a slice of our military’s jobs, lives, and stories, which in reality are as impressive and as varied as the more than 2 million men and women serving in uniform today.

Over the last decade or so, this has even contributed to new misconceptions and stereotypes about military life among younger Americans.

For example, some tell us they think military life is incompatible with having a family, when the truth is, 52 percent of our enlisted force is married, and 70 percent of our office corps is married. These are both much greater percentages than in the population as a whole. Some people even told us they think there’s a penalty in the military for getting pregnant – that’s not only false; in fact, we now offer 12 weeks paid maternity leave for a new mother serving in uniform.

Also, our polls show that young Americans today are 30 percent less likely than they were 10 years ago to think joining the military would let them earn money for college, yet the reality is the exact opposite. And that – during that very time, 10 years, the G.I. Bill has helped over 2.3 million veterans pay for college, and 120,000 have benefited from ROTC scholarships.

And less than half of young Americans today – survey shows – think that the active-duty military has people like them in it, despite the fact that we have people from all walks of life in our ranks – and no matter who you are, who you love, what you look like, or where your parents came from, if you’re able and willing to serve, and meet our high standards, we give you a full and equal opportunity to do so.

The bottom line is that because we too often talk about sacrifice alone, which is no small thing, we probably don’t spend enough time highlighting the opportunities that exist, and the fulfillment one has from achieving excellence and doing the service of your country. No one should gloss over the hardships or dangers of military life, but our servicemembers would be among the first to tell you how proud they feel to wear a uniform, how much they’ve learned and grown, and how it feels to wake up every morning to contribute something to bigger than yourself.

If we’re going to ensure we keep recruiting top talent in future generations, we want to puncture these stereotypes and help our fellow citizens get to know today’s military for what it really is, even if they don’t have a parent, or neighbor, or coach, or a friends who served.  And in terms of where and how we recruit, we’ll be missing an opportunity if we kept fishing in only the same geographic ponds we are now. We need to seize that opportunity by fishing in more ponds, new ponds, ponds we haven’t been in in a long time. We have to draw talent from our country’s entire pool of population for our all-volunteer force.

The first step is identifying the importance of this effort, and this a big reason why I came here to give this speech.  While I speak about this all the time, all the while we’re engaged around the world, protecting our country and confronting our enemies; nevertheless, I never take my eye off this.  Because if we’re going to help an entire generation better understand who we are and what we’re about, one speech isn’t enough – it requires a comprehensive effort across the department, and this is our focus. Let me take a few minute to tell you what we’re planning to do. And these are new things.

We’re going to start communicating better the value of military life – telling our story in more places, more ways, and to a broader range of audiences across the country. While we plan to do through that through several different avenues, I want to tell you about a few.

First, we’re going to change how we highlight our mission through advertising. There’s a long history of advertising for military service – from the century-old “I Want You” posters of Uncle Sam, to the commercials you see on primetime and network TV. These ad campaigns are meant to get potential recruits to sign up so that the military services can meet their recruiting needs; they get people in the door and help the services build a brand that sets them apart from others. Well, that’s good, but they sometimes highlight only a narrow slice of the institution and people who defend this country every day.

Although the Defense Department used to advertise the value of military life as a whole, we got away from that over the last several years. In some ways, we’re a victim of our success, with so many people signing up after 9/11 and the Great Recession. Now we’re getting back into it. I mean, we’re starting to advertise the value of military life and public service again, and the service’s recruiting ads.

In doing so, we’re going to reach out and talk to the American people wherever they are – which, as you know, isn’t just on TV anymore but increasingly in different places online. And we won’t just speak to potential recruits; we’re going to speak to everyone – including parents, grandparents, coaches, teachers, guidance counselors, and more who might influence a potential recruit.

To truly have an effect, this has to be done in a sustained way and over a long period of time. We won’t be selling the newest phones or trying to get you signed up for the newest credit card. Ultimately, what we’re selling is service and mission – a chance to be part, as I said, of something bigger than yourself, that will not only do something good for you, but let you serve others, and then after you’ve served, go on to do something great with the rest of your life like so many of our veterans do.

Now, since advertising can’t fully substitute for personal inspiration and contact, we’re also going to create a DoD Speaker’s Bureau of senior leaders and experts from across our military and Defense Department dedicated to helping educate key audiences – schools, parents, teachers, principals, coaches, career counselors, civic groups, cultural groups, youth groups, companies, and more – on the value and benefits of military and public service in support of our mission of national defense. And I’m the first speaker to sign up and I’m kicking that off right here, today.

In addition, we’re going to try to better leverage our most successful outreach programs and also help – that already help people give back to America’s communities. One example is called STARBASE, where our servicemembers volunteer in local elementary schools and help inspire kids to explore and learn more about science, technology, engineering, and math. And that allows us to help them, but also allows those little kids to get to know us in a hands-on way, and we want to have more of that opportunity in both directions.

Similarly, we’re also going to do some important new things to help each of the services improve their recruiting efforts, to increase our access geographically, demographically, and generationally.

For example, I’ve heard from some of our recruiters that some high schools aren’t giving them the access they feel they need to be able to do their jobs. Now, the law requires schools to give our recruiters a basic level of access, and while it seems many schools are complying with that – recognizing that DoD might offer their students an exciting and impactful career – some others are putting up roadblocks. This is wrong. So as part of a new program to help recruiters, we’re going to survey them and identify where exactly they face impediments to access and what the most useful types of access actually are, so we can educate those educators who may not be complying with the law or who may be making life harder on their students and recruiters, and find a way to improve that. Our goal here is to better educate schools about our mission, and help them realize they should want to let us in, because it’d be a missed opportunity for their students if they don’t.

Our services are also going to be experimenting with having their recruiters be more mobile, leveraging technologies so they can recruit across a wider geographic areas. And they’ll also review some of the benchmarks kids currently have to meet in order to join the military. When I was in Boston earlier this year, I sat down with some of our fantastic enlisted recruiters from all over the Northeast, and they told me some of the challenges they were facing with spectacular potential recruits who nevertheless also reflect the times in relation to such benchmarks as their current physical fitness, tattoos they got when they were younger, single parenthood, and the like. Now, some of these things we’ll never be able to compromise on – we’ll always have to maintain high standards.  At the same time, these benchmarks must be kept relevant for both today’s force and tomorrow’s, meaning we have to ensure that they’re not unnecessarily restrictive. So we’re going to review and update these standards as appropriate.

And this brings me to another way we bring talented people into the military – in fact, right here, right now – and that’s through our Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, ROTC, located on campuses around the country. Forty percent of our officers come from ROTC. It’s also a key part of helping those who may not have been exposed to us before getting to know us.

This is ROTC’s 100th anniversary, and because DoD’s a learning organization, and we’re always trying to improve, it stands to reason that we should use this anniversary to examine ROTC – how can we make it even better?  And that’s what our sixth link to the Force of the Future’s all about, preparing ROTC for another 100 years of success.

There’s no question that ROTC’s had its ups and downs over the last century. But today, it’s a very successful program, and CCNY is proof of that. CCNY enrolled its first Army ROTC student in 1917, 99 years ago, the first year of the program, making it one of the first programs in the whole country. And it was subsequently a mainstay ROTC school until 1971, when the Faculty Senate voted to cut ties with the military to protest the Vietnam War, as many other colleges and universities did at the time. ROTC didn’t return until after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed a few years ago, which allowed gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly. And since ROTC came back to CCNY in 2013, cadets graduating from here have gone on to assignments in exciting fields, like cyber and military intelligence, and serve in places all around the world, South Korea, Japan, Middle East.

Now, we want to make sure that these detachments are able to thrive, help more people on these campuses to get to know us, and thereby help us attract talent to contribute to our mission. We plan to do this by focusing on those who participate in ROTC, and those who lead it, and on the program overall.

Now, to make sure ROTC keeps attracting great participants like Cadet Reynolds, your instructors here also, we’ll be offering more graduate school scholarships – especially for law school and medical school – for students who are college seniors. We’ll also offer more two- and three-year ROTC scholarships, which will make it easier for someone who maybe didn’t know about ROTC at first, but will be able to participate nevertheless and serve if they learned about it maybe from a roommate or a teammate or a classmate once they get to campus. We’re going to sponsor more high school students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math to shadow ROTC cadets at schools that specialize in those fields, to help them open their eyes to how ROTC’s worth a try.  And to reward cadets that challenge themselves academically – for example, if they choose a more rigorous academic major or deliberately seek out harder courses – we plan to make it possible for them to get credit for that when they commission, specifically in how their service generates what we call the branching and assignment Order of Merit list, which basically means giving them a greater choice in what they’ll do in the military.

Next, turning to those who instruct ROTC cadets, because so many of our officers come from ROTC units, we want them to be taught by our very best – just like you want the best professors and you all check out your evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com, we’re the same.

And the thing is, often in the military, just as with teachers in our society general, generally the job of being a ROTC instructor isn’t always treated as importantly as it should be. We have educators here, I’ve been an educator myself. For instance, some officers determining their next assignment may have to choose between a ROTC instructor, or accepting a command slot that would get them promoted sooner. This can make the job less appealing to those that want to advance up the ranks, making some good officers who want to make yet more good officers unable to choose to do this.

And now, that’s not always the case. My senior military assistant, Brigadier General Eric Smith – Eric, where are you? – who’s here today – right back there, Eric, my senior military assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense – instructed future Marine officers in the Navy ROTC program at Texas A&M. And he’ll tell you it was fantastic. So did our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford – he was a Marine Officer Instructor at Holy Cross in Massachusetts for three years – the first ever Chairman, by the way, to have ever done so. And that not only gave him critical insights into the generation of officers that he would lead in the future, but it also helped him build closer ties between us and that community.

Teaching leadership on a college campus is something DoD should reward, and we need to encourage and make it easier for our best people to do so. And that’s why I’ve directed the military services to ensure that their officer promotion and selection boards appropriately value those who serve as ROTC instructors. We’re also going to set up a pipeline for officers who did ROTC themselves to give back to the program and be instructors later in their careers.

Lastly, in terms of the ROTC program as a whole, we want it to be continuously improving nationwide, with units and schools across the country sharing best practices and good ideas that might work for others.

Right now we don’t have a way to know which units are doing great things that others might want to consider adopting, in part because we have so many programs all over the country – more, by the way, than at the end of the Vietnam War – so we’re going to develop data-driven ways to accurately measure and assess which ROTC units are most effective in performing their mission. And we’re going to look at much more than just how many officers they commission each year, because quality and training and innovative ideas and things like reaching back into the local community and strengthening connections with the school are important, too. ROTC units that stand out the most each year will be eligible for a new reward recognizing their excellence, the Secretary of Defense ROTC Futures Award – and I challenge CCNY to be among the first to get it.

Now, I want to be clear that for all we’ve done over the last year – including the plans I’ve laid out today – building the Force of the Future isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a generational effort, and this is just the beginning. Because our goal is to address challenges and seize opportunities that have arisen over years and decades, and we have to sustain and build on this over the years and decades ahead as well. I’m confident we can, because for the first time in a long time, the parts of the Pentagon that handle the health, the welfare, the readiness, and the talent management of our people across the entire lifetime of their service have a clear roadmap for where they’re going and what they’re going to do in the years ahead. And we’ll keep innovating as we learn more, do more and as society and technology change.

After all, we want people to consider military and public service because when it comes to working in national security, no matter what they do, military or civilian, they’ll be better off for having been part of this incredible mission. And that’s true for all of you as well.  Whether it’s the people, the skills, or the experiences, nothing else compares to it – I guarantee it.

You know, it’s been said that security is like oxygen. When you have it, you don’t think about it, but when you don’t have it, it’s all you ever think about. The men and women who serve in our military provide that security, that oxygen, not only to Americans, but to many all over the world who still depend on us for their oxygen, too. That allows millions of Americans and millions of our friends and allies to get up in the morning, and to go to work, to go to schools like CCNY, to live their lives, and dream their dreams, and give their children a better future. That is one of the noblest things a person can do, and there’s no other feeling like waking up every morning and knowing you’re contributing to that mission.

While I don’t expect all of you to join us, I do ask you to give it some thought and to give encouragement when a friend, or a sibling, maybe even one day a child of yours might decide to do so.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if there’s a future Secretary of Defense sitting here or somewhere on this campus at CCNY today, or a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sitting among the ROTC cadets here. But I’m also confident that you all have something to contribute: a drive to be something – part of something bigger than yourself. And that’s where the call to service begins. And that’s the beginning of how we’ll make a better and a brighter world – together.

Thank you for having me here today.