Team Army

A top civilian leader talks recruitment in the modern era.

July 2023

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Gabe Camarillo holding a sign saying "Beat Navy" with service members

WON OVER: Camarillo, left, didn’t consider a career in the military when he was young. But after he was offered a Defense Department position in 2008, he soon became hooked on the mission and the camaraderie. Photo: Sgt. David Resnick/US Army

This July marks 50 years since the United States ended the draft and moved to all-volunteer armed forces. The Army, however, didn’t exactly march past the milestone with its chest held out. In 2022, the military’s largest branch missed its recruiting goal by 25 percent, a historic shortfall equivalent to 15,000 missing soldiers. That’s a concern for Gabe Camarillo, JD ’02, who was confirmed last year as the undersecretary of the Army, where he is chief management officer and the second-highest-ranking civilian. The roots of the problem, he says, include the lingering effects of the pandemic, a tight labor market, and a pair of worrying downward trends: Not only are fewer young people open to joining the military, but many aren’t even eligible—they don’t meet the health and aptitude requirements.

A military career was an about-face for Camarillo, who grew up in El Paso, Texas. His mom—also from El Paso—ran a home day care and later worked in accounting, while his father, who immigrated from Mexico and whose schooling ended in fourth grade, worked as a movie projectionist. That job allowed his son—a budding film buff—to while away hot summer days hopping from screen to screen. “I saw a lot of 1980s cinema,” he says. “Probably more than I should have as a kid.” Nearby Fort Bliss was a mainstay of El Paso life, but like a lot of teens today, Camarillo didn’t consider that the military might match his ambitions. He headed to Georgetown University intent on becoming a lawyer. In Washington, D.C., he caught the political bug as legislative assistant and deputy press secretary to Democratic Rep. Calvin Dooley, MA ’87, from California, adding experience in national security and military construction to his portfolio. He started at Stanford Law School in 1999.

‘You’ll never work anywhere where everyone from the top to the bottom is as aligned around a common purpose.’

After working on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Camarillo was offered a position in the Department of Defense. He was drawn in by the chance to again work on national security. His role with the Army quickly required him to stretch well beyond his legal skills. He was soon heading a $30 billion research and development portfolio overseeing weapon system acquisitions. “At first, it was like sitting in a room with people speaking a completely different language,” he says.

He was hooked, however. “You’ll never work anywhere where everyone from the top to the bottom is as aligned around a common purpose,” he says. Camarillo has spent more than eight years in civilian leadership for the Army and the Air Force during Democratic administrations. (He returned to private employment during Donald Trump’s presidency.) Stanford talked to Camarillo about the importance of an all-volunteer Army, the reasons for the enlistment shortfall, and possible solutions to the problem.

Stanford: Is the 50th anniversary of an all-volunteer military reason for celebration?

Camarillo: It’s absolutely a cause for celebration. For 50 years, to be able to not only attract and recruit talented men and women to serve in all the armed forces for that long of a period of time, but also to be able to recruit and attract the very best talent the nation has to offer, to give them the training and experience they need to continue to serve as the world’s absolute greatest and most impressive military force in the world—it’s the envy of every other country.

How worrisome is the recent recruitment shortfall? 

What keeps the United States safe is a strong deterrent capability and its partners and allies, but it takes the talented men and women that serve in our military to make it happen. Today, we can perform any mission in the world that we have to do, and we have exceptionally talented people do it. I’ve got to worry about the pipeline of people coming in behind them. A 25 percent reduction, or any drop-off in the number of Americans that are willing to serve, I think, is of concern for all of us.

So why are fewer young people joining the Army?

We did some research among the population of 16- to 20-year-olds last year. The top factor that prevented most of them from considering a career in the Army was a fear of getting hurt, whether in training or combat operations, and the second was that it would take these young people off their chosen career path. But, you know, there’s a wide range of things you can do. You could be a veterinarian, a doctor, a lawyer. You can be a coder. You can be a nurse. You can do just about anything you can think of in the Army.

What about the narrative that that the military has become “too woke” and has alienated conservative communities where enlistment has traditionally been strong? 

We specifically asked whether these kind of culture issues, whether efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, or to address climate change—which has an operational impact to the Army and other military services—were seen as impediments to wanting to join the Army. And we found in our survey results that they were among the very lowest responses.

Gabe Camarillo walking and talking with a group of service members.TOUR OF DUTY: Among Camarillo's concerns as undersecretary of the Army is improving soldiers' quality of life at posts such as Fort Cavazos, Texas. (Photo: Lt. Col. Kamil Sztalkoper/US Army)

How did the pandemic affect enlistment?

In a normal year, there will be a lot of engagement by high school recruiters at school job fairs, at military appreciation events, and other opportunities. Statistically, most of the people who end up joining the Army aren’t initially open to doing so, so that engagement with a recruiter is vital for our success. So, having the pandemic close that access, it meant that we were operating at a significant deficit in terms of interpersonal exchange, awareness, and education.

The pandemic also impacted test scores academically, and we see that borne out in the academic tests that recruits have to take to join the military. We also saw it in the number of students meeting our physical skills and requirements. Students were not engaging in athletic activities. Team sports were canceled. It had an effect.

The tight labor market must have hurt too.

We’ve always been able to offer competitive benefits and incentives to potential recruits. What I think has changed in the last two years, given the tight labor market, is that private employers are becoming much more competitive with the types of benefits they’re offering to kids coming out of high school.

What’s an example of the Army’s response?

We have a nine-week online program we started last year [for] interested men and women. We’ll give you a special academic skills training to be able to help you to perform better and to get better scores on the test for entrance into the military. If it’s a physical training issue, we have dietitians, trainers, and other folks who will help you get into shape in a healthy way that’s sustainable. A little over 3,500 young men and women have come through this program, and the success rate has been above 90 percent so far.

You have two kids, one old enough to serve, the other not far away from that age. What would you say if they asked you about joining the military?

I would certainly encourage them to pursue it. If you are at that age, regardless of your career choice, you have an opportunity to get incredible training. You have a chance to see the world. You have an opportunity to be part of some highly sophisticated teams doing some great missions. And depending on what you specialize in, you’re going to get a chance to work on problems you won’t get anywhere in the private sector.

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at

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