Sergeant Major of the Army Talks Recruiting (Down), Retention (Up), and the ‘W Word’ (Woke)

sergeant major of the army

The US Army is facing a recruiting crisis but has managed to meet 104% of its retention goal. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston has some ideas for both. Photos courtesy of DVIDS. Composite by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photos courtesy of DVIDS. Composite by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston outranks every enlisted soldier in the entire army. But the soldiers he thinks about a lot are those who outrank no one: new recruits.

The US Army is facing a recruiting crisis. And the senior enlisted soldier knows it. The Army was 15,000 recruits short of its recruiting goals for 2022.

“It sucks,” Grinston told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I know we’re a large Army, but 15,000 — that hurts. We’re doing the best we can, and we got to do better because we have not taken away one mission.”

Though deployments to Afghanistan are over, Grinston pointed out that Army units continue to deploy. The 18th Airborne Corps has a deployment in Europe to bolster NATO’s eastern flank, while American soldiers are still in Iraq and Syria, and the Army has rising commitments in Africa and Asia. Plus, soldiers have been called on the home front to counter wildfires and the pandemic.

Sergeant Major of the Army

The Columbia Recruiting Battalion, in partnership with the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment, hosted a recruiting event for future soldiers on April 23, 2022. The event showcased the US Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. US Army photo.

US Army photo.

He said they were doing more with less, so getting the empty seats filled was a priority, but they wouldn’t do it by lowering the standards.

The first task is getting young civilians qualified, he said. Recent national education data has shown that the pandemic negatively affected testing scores for school kids after two years of online learning. Stay-at-home orders have also had a negative effect on physical fitness.

In response, the Army launched the Future Soldier Preparatory Course located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Potential soldiers that are just short on the body composition test or ASVAB test scores arrive at the prep course to undergo training to prepare them for service in the Army.

Sergeant Major of the Army

Army Reserve drill sergeants motivate a participant of the Army Reserve Fitness Challenge during the Twin Cities Tough Mudder in Hugo, Minnesota, on July 17, 2016. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Cliff Coy.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Cliff Coy.

The results are promising, Grinston said.

“When they transition from the Future Soldier Prep Course, they’re usually better prepared for basic combat training,” Grinston said. “So they are seeing them be leaders in basic training, in [advanced individual training], because they’ve got, really, a leg up on everybody else.”

But that leaves a question of how to better connect with the American public so recruits can know what the Army is all about.

“I think one of those places we do need to do more in is with social media, with a quick hit, like how do we get people, young men and women, to just even click on the website for one minute?” Grinston said. “We got to have a very short video or something that gets their attention.”

Sergeant Major of the Army

Trainees with 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, are fitted for their Army Green Service Uniform on Oct. 18, 2021, at the 120th Adjutant General Battalion Reception. US Army photo by Wallace McBride.

US Army photo by Wallace McBride.

While the Army is working to improve recruiting efforts, it has no issue retaining soldiers. More than 58,000 soldiers reenlisted in 2022.

“When people join, they want to stay a part of that team, and we see our retention numbers stay at a very high level,” Grinston said. “But we gotta get out and talk to American people about their military, you know? It’s a great place to serve. It’s not just about the benefits; it’s really about doing something greater than yourself.”

So why is retention so high during a recruiting crisis? Grinston said he and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville have focused relentlessly on addressing living conditions and trying to help ensure soldiers can maintain a work and personal life balance.

In July, Grinston found mold in a Fort Bragg barracks on a tour. Almost immediately, the building was closed and troops moved out. Now barracks across the Army are being closed to address mold problems.

Sergeant Major of the Army

US Army Sgt. 1st Class David Rodriguez, assigned to the Recruit Sustainment Program, Detachment 1, 6th Recruiting and Retention Battalion, Connecticut Army National Guard, talks to potential recruits at the Middletown Armed Forces Reserve Center on June 20, 2020. US Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Lucibello.

US Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Lucibello.

Grinston said he doesn’t typically hear what soldiers like, but he hears about the problems. He believes the soldiers stay because they recognize the team they are a part of and the drive to continue their mission with that team.

“I think what most people realize when they decide to reenlist is that we do have a place that is a cohesive team that is highly trained, disciplined, and fit,” Grinston said. “Believe it or not, folks want to go out and do their mission.”

The Army has been accused of being too “woke,” but Grinston said he and other senior leaders try to steer clear of that debate.

“We let our actions speak for ourselves. In our monthly meeting, I’ll be honest, we don’t talk about any of that,” Grinston said. “I’ll go back to what I said: Our main mission is to fight and win the nation’s wars and deploy where we’ve been told to deploy and help where we can.”

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Joshua is a staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, Joshua grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. Joshua went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married, has two children, and is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, which is where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.
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