Americans Rally Round the Flag, But Do They Know Who Protects It?

Americans Rally Round the Flag, But Do They Know Who Protects It?

Why you should care

Because a lack of awareness and rising risk factors are depleting the armed services. 

On National Anthem Day in early March, President Donald Trump tweeted a clip of himself speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

It was a continuation of Trump’s embrace of the flag — and his outspoken criticism of athletes who chose to kneel in protest of race-based police brutality, a specious political patriotism he has invoked everywhere from the State of the Union to the Super Bowl. Dating back to the start of the last NFL season, both the pledge and the troops it has come to signify have become a political football punted between America’s leaders, stirring a debate over what it means to be truly patriotic.

Yet despite the attention — and the millions spent by the Department of Defense in recent years to make military flyovers, flag ceremonies and national anthem performances part of cultural touchstones like football Sundays — the truth is that most young Americans remain largely ignorant of the men and women protecting them. According to a Military Ad Tracking Reserve Study conducted last year:

Nearly half of Americans ages 17 to 35 can’t name the four largest branches of the U.S. armed services.

Had to think for a moment, didn’t you? For the record: Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Even though the U.S. has spent nearly two decades in conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the armed forces clearly suffer from a branding problem. Only 15 percent of young adults have a parent who served, compared to 40 percent in 1995. Discouraging reports suggest factors like rising obesity and drug use have left nearly three-quarters of Americans ineligible for military service.

The military also suffers from what Maj. Carla M. Gleason, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, calls “misperceptions” about service: A vast majority of young people reported that they believed it was likely, or very likely, to leave the military with a psychological or emotional problem, difficulty readjusting to everyday life and physical injury. Youth are “more familiar with the risks than the benefits of serving,” concludes a sobering State of the Youth report released internally last August.

The Pentagon is trying to change that perception by getting back into the direct advertising game for the first time in about a decade. Its ads won’t focus on celebrities, but on “connecting with the rest of America,” says Stephanie Miller, the DOD’s director of military accession policy. Namely, influencers — from parents to coaches and teachers — who often are the first confidants for young people considering military service. The budget is still being hammered out by Congress, but Miller says funds in the “tens of millions” are expected to be spent, in bid processes that could include projects over the airwaves and social media.

Breaking through remains challenging, Miller admits. “There is fierce competition” for attention online, she says, and state-funded ads are sometimes dismissed by viewers as propaganda. Gleason says public works projects, like those done through the Army Corps of Engineers, help grow trust in communities more organically. But compared to the post-9/11 days, the Pentagon is looking to climb uphill in reaching the next generation. Speaking personally, Gleason wonders about the shift in volunteerism. “Maybe we feel decently safe as a society and that desire to serve the country has shifted to civic or local community work,” Gleason says. “The military does a really good job of keeping us safe in a quiet way. And because you don’t see that, we’re kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

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