Building Strong Leaders for a Resilient All-Volunteer Force: Embracing Tomorrow’s Soldiers Today | An Interview with Maj. Gen. Deborah L. Kotulich

By Mike CrozierAugust 1, 2023

Maj. Gen. Deborah L. Kotulich, Army Recruiting and Retention Task Force Director, administers the oath of office to commissioning officers from Fordham University on May 19, 2023, at Fordham University’s Rose Hill University Church, Bronx, New...
Maj. Gen. Deborah L. Kotulich, Army Recruiting and Retention Task Force Director, administers the oath of office to commissioning officers from Fordham University on May 19, 2023, at Fordham University’s Rose Hill University Church, Bronx, New York. (Photo Credit: Lt. Col. Kamil Sztalkoper) VIEW ORIGINAL

From a nondescript office building mere blocks away from the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Deborah L. Kotulich and her team are hard at work solving one of the most pressing challenges facing today’s Army. Charged with leading the Army Recruiting and Retention Task Force, established in 2022 to address the challenges facing the service’s ability to meet its end strength goal, Kotulich is leaving no stone unturned in her ongoing assessment of the broader accessions enterprise. A sustainer by trade who formerly commanded the 143rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Kotulich most recently served as the chief of staff for the Department of the Army’s Support to the Naming Commission and as the Countermeasures Acceleration Group’s Director of Supply Production and Distribution for vaccine and therapeutics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Army Sustainment sat down with the Recruiting and Retention Task Force’s director to discuss the past, present, and future of Army recruiting as the all-volunteer force celebrates its 50th year in 2023.

The Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, has asserted that the Army Recruiting and Retention Task Force’s charter is to “look at our recruiting and retention enterprise and tear it down to the studs” in all things policy and procedure. In your first 90 days as the Recruiting and Retention Task Force’s director, what existing strengths or weaknesses did you and your team identify and prioritize? What surprised you?

After the Secretary of the Army determined that the service needed an organization uniquely focused on the recruiting and retention problem set, I took the helm as the Recruiting and Retention Task Force’s director in October of 2022. The recruiting enterprise had been built in the Industrial Age for the Industrial Age — agility wasn’t necessarily inherent in its existing structure. When I came on board, I was immediately impressed by how the Army focused its modernization efforts and resources into this distinct space. Off the bat, we ran several design thinking workshops to bring in academic, industry, and other government agency perspectives to help us think big about 1) how we advertise and market the Army and 2) the end-to-end recruiting process. What we got from all that was a rather exhaustive list of the policies, incentives, and processes needing revamping or transformation to move the entire accessions enterprise forward. What surprised me most was the notion that nothing was new to our recruiters, especially those sergeants major and master sergeants with 20 or 30 years of experience. They’ve indeed seen it all, so we found it imperative from day one to leverage that expertise for the Army’s benefit and create a playbook of what works, what doesn’t, and what will work in the future.

In 2005, the Army missed its recruiting goal by the widest margin in roughly 20 years, yet it rebounded massively just one year later to reach its accessions goal. The Army, and the other services, seem to find themselves in a similar position today. How is the Army Recruiting and Retention Task Force working alongside its personnel counterparts to repeat this success?

The current environment is our primary focus, but we’re certainly operating from a place of historical awareness. There are some circumstantial similarities between 2005-2006 and the present day, but they’re not exactly the same, and certain factors that impact today’s recruiting landscape are outside of our control. That’s just the reality of the situation. We’ve studied Generation Z and know what they want: passion and purpose. We also know that there’s a perception of joining the Army that denotes time away from family and friends while putting your life on hold. Basically, military service is not viewed as a springboard. While I saw it as such when I began my Army journey in 1985, we must understand the new population who will make up the current Army and that of 2030 and beyond. In the broadest sense, the country is in a much different place in 2023, and Generation Z doesn’t have a deep understanding of the Army and who we are as an organization. We have assessed this as a knowledge and relatability gap that we’re embracing and are laser-focused on closing. If you don’t know an organization, you can neither relate to it nor see yourself becoming a part of it in any capacity. Beyond understanding this younger generation, we must also invest in them. Initiatives like the Future Soldier Prep Course allow us to invest in America’s young adults who want to serve in the Army but need extra help. The Secretary and Chief of Staff hold the line that we will not lower our standards and sacrifice quality for quantity. Programs like that are certainly new, but the approach to solving these challenges is not. This is where having that historical perspective certainly helps us.

Retention figures do not seem to strictly mirror recruiting, as the Army has recently boasted a strong retention rate. Why is that the case? Can you offer more targeted insight into how the logistics branch retains talent?

The two are related but not inextricably linked. We are pleased that our retention rates are higher than in the last ten years. The Sergeant Major of the Army makes a great point when he asserts that Soldiers have a good experience when they’re in the Army, so they decide to stay. That’s a huge positive we need to understand and figure out how to build upon. This reflects the level of effort from leaders at echelon to meet Soldiers where they are as the Army has evolved — and continues to evolve — over time. I believe much of this derives from the Army’s emphasis on the family. Years ago, the adage held that if you wanted a family, the Army would issue you one. Now, though, that’s completely flipped on its head, as we believe that the strength of our Army is our Soldiers, and the strength of our Soldiers is their families. The bottom line is this: if we want to retain Soldiers, we must recognize that quality of life for them and their families matter. On the logistics branch side of the equation, we’re seeing high and consistent job satisfaction because Soldiers in varying jobs are doing the thing they were trained to do. If you’re a mechanic, you’re working on systems; if you’re a cook, you’re feeding Soldiers. Regardless of the environment or scenario, they do their jobs and enjoy their work.

The majority of the Army’s logisticians are part of the National Guard and Reserve. Additionally, the Reserve’s recently developed campaign slogan — “It’s Your Time” — lends credence to the notion that there are nuanced differences between the active and reserve components the general public may not be tracking. With this in mind, how do recruiting and retention efforts differ across components?

Organizationally speaking, U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) is focused on recruiting for the active and reserve components. There are roughly 9,000 recruiters at USAREC, and approximately 10% are active reserve NCOs from Compo 3. The National Guard, on the other hand, is structured very differently, as they recruit for themselves with 54 distinct organizations to cover all states and territories. The Army relaunched “Be All You Can Be” as a reintroduction to the American people to close that knowledge and relatability gap that I mentioned earlier, and each component is doing what it can to best describe the possibilities of an Army career. There are differences across the components, which should undoubtedly be communicated and made clear to folks curious about how they can get the most out of their time serving their country. For instance, if you’re in the Reserve, then chances are you can drill within about 90 minutes of home. Notions of putting your life on hold then become a bit hyperbolic. So we must ensure people clearly understand what service does and does not denote. The Army has more career fields than any other employer, so there’s almost nothing you can’t do or that we couldn’t find for you across all the components. Serving in the Army encompasses so much more than what you might see just in movies, of course, and it’s on us to make sure Generation Z has a clear picture of that reality. From medical specialties to domestic disaster recovery support, I believe everyone can find their purpose in the Army regardless of their interests.

What have you learned from studying Generation Z so closely?

We know Gen Z wants purpose and passion; they want connection and to be part of a team that will make a difference. I think our analyses also uncovered the reality that we need to reach out to these folks not just in high schools but college campuses and beyond. For example, we know more young men and women are choosing to go to college, but many aren’t completing their studies for a host of reasons and would benefit from joining our Army team. I think this helped us reframe and reanalyze existing policies to ensure those who want to serve can access the Army. Take, for example, the Army Loan Repayment Program, which initially was only open to a few specialties. At the beginning of fiscal year 2023, we opened it to over 30 specialties, making the program more appealing.

The Army’s most recent and visible programmatic developments, such as the Battalion Command Assessment Program (BCAP) and Career Intermission Program (CIP), aim to best select, train, and retain our future leaders while offering Soldiers flexibility to best manage their careers. How do you rate their collective success as they contribute to our end strength?

Those selection processes have helped us re-engineer how we identify our future leaders, and they’ve successfully made sure we’re evaluating the whole person and not just what we see on paper. We’re leveraging that success in other areas, too, including recruiting. With this in mind, we’re looking at different ways to select talent from the NCO corps to be recruiters and drill sergeants using the BCAP model to identify the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for those positions. The CIP program, while still fairly new since its inception several years ago, is an effort to meet Soldiers where they are in their lives and, depending on what’s going on, don’t feel like they need to leave the Army to take care of some family matters or for some other form of advancement, be it for academic or spiritual reasons. CIP creates flexibility where there previously was only rigidity, so someone can take some time away from the Army and come back, able to pick up where they left off.

The Army has designated 15 major cities as priority recruiting markets through the end of this year. How can Soldiers serving near those metropolitan areas or maintaining local ties contribute to the greater recruiting effort?

Our greatest assets and ambassadors are our Soldiers, and they have some great stories about overcoming adversity and achieving things they never thought they could achieve. These are extremely compelling, and we want people to share them. To enable this, we established hometown recruiting leave and the Soldier Referral Program, so Soldiers can engage with potential recruits at home or elsewhere and use a special leave code for that time. Not only will they not lose leave, but they can also gain promotion points and earn a recruiting ribbon. At a foundational level, the Army Enterprise Marketing Office has done a fantastic job updating, making it easier than ever to point an interested friend or family member to learn more about career opportunities and life in the Army. If they can’t find what they’re looking for there, they can call the help center and immediately speak to one of our teammates who either served or retired about their service, which I think is extremely powerful.

The Army celebrates 50 years as an all-volunteer force this summer. What are you most excited about for the next 50 years?

I’m excited to see the Army continue to develop strong leaders. That’s one thing that we are uniquely qualified to do. We want to recruit, train, and retain people who can meet complex challenges head-on, often with imperfect information, and apply decision-making skills to overcome, achieve, and win any mission as part of a broader team. For 50 years, the all-volunteer force has been a winning model, and we intend to keep it that way while advancing the Army as the greatest fighting force in the world. Everyone can play a huge role in describing the benefit of an all-volunteer force — Soldiers, families, civilians, and Soldiers for life.


Mike Crozier is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistic Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.


This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of Army Sustainment.


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