PERRIS, California — Cathleen Pearl, clad in a gold and black Army jumpsuit, extended a high five to retired Lt. Col. Fred Wellman as she walked off the Perris Tandem Camp airstrip on an unseasonably cool day in southern California.
Pearl had just completed her tandem jump with the Army’s Golden Knights, the service’s premiere parachute team. Pearl, a Navy and Air National Guard vet, serves as the director of an organization designed to help empower veterans to become civic assets. Wellman is CEO of a communications and advocacy company built to serve vets and their families. Pearl and Wellman were among 16 community leaders at the event who have the potential to influence American communities and Army recruits.
Earlier that day, a Tuskegee Airman, retired Lt. Col. Robert Friend, swore in about three dozen new Army recruits.
Army Recruiting Command leaders hope that hosting such events help spread the positive image of the Army as each of the guests have the networks and potential to influence communities, said USAREC public affairs officer Brian Sutton. Those positive vibes generated from the event could pay dividends as Army recruiters make the push to meet the end-strength goals set by Congress.
For four years the Army had downsized until the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. After the Army met its recruiting goal of 68,500 Soldiers for the active-duty force this past fiscal year, that number has risen to 80,000 for 2018, while the target numbers for the Army Reserve and National Guard have also increased. This past January’s increase from 62,500 to 68,500 marked the largest mid-year recruiting increase in the history of the Army’s all-volunteer force.
“I don’t think this is going to get any easier,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, USAREC commander. “Not to disprove this past year, but this is the start of what I think is going to be a multi-year effort … the reality is, we’re not large enough to do all the things the nation is asking us to do now,” he said of the Army.
While the challenge may be daunting for the Army’s 9,000-plus recruiters, Greg Bishop, a retired lieutenant colonel who participated in the event, said the Army may be headed in the right direction toward meeting those numbers. Programs such as Soldier For Life will help connect older veterans with the Army. After retiring from the Army after 21 years, Bishop partnered in creating a network that tells lesser-known stories about veterans in a documentary-style format. The network’s products are available online to stream on Roku and Amazon Prime.
“What General Snow has done in terms of outreach to the veteran community is long overdue,” Bishop said. “I applaud him for being the guy to make that happen. I believe that the vast majority of veterans if they were asked to help with the Army’s recruiting in any way, they would be willing to help — they just don’t know how to help. I think what General Snow is doing — reaching out to veterans in an event like this … is a great step in terms of the Army’s efforts to engrain the Soldier for Life philosophy.”
USAREC invited influential leaders and veterans, including Jayson Browder, a former airman who founded a 12-month fellowship program created for student veterans and potential future leaders. Browder served as a Presidential Management Fellow and is a former Fulbright Scholar. Another participant, JJ Pinter, is a former West Point graduate who became the executive director of an organization that connects veterans with physical activity such as relay and long distance races. Finally USAREC invited Friend, one of the nation’s first African-American pilots who served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The 97-year-old Friend also visited two southern California high schools and interacted with students Nov. 2.
“(The veterans’ event) gives a perfect example of how the military empowers people: strong leadership skills,” Pearl said. “They take all of that back home with them. It’s been shown through research that veterans when they go back to their communities, they vote at a higher rate. They volunteer at a higher rate. They do more charitable giving … So they’re just civically oriented. They continue to serve even when they go back home.”
Snow noted that the Army faces the most difficult challenge of the services in building higher numbers. The challenge lies in creating awareness among America’s youth; the target demographic for recruiters.
“I would argue that the primary obstacle that we are facing is the youth of today are unaware of the opportunities to serve,” Snow said. “They don’t know the commitment that we have to education, whether you’re enlisted or (an) officer. Quite candidly, they don’t understand the competitive advantage serving in the military can offer.”
Each of the guests received the opportunity to take part in a tandem jump with a member of the Golden Knights. The Army’s parachute demonstration team regularly attends recruiting events to build positive community relationships. Often, this helps dispel stereotypes of the Army by interacting with the public, Bishop said.
“(The Golden Knights) are awesome,” Bishop said. “They’re walking the talk. It’s not just beating their chest. They’re demonstrating their expertise. When they bridge that gap is when they’re interacting with the community — when they’re talking to school kids. Or when they’re doing tandem jumps with people who couldn’t otherwise jump 14,000 feet.”