It's not exactly clear what is causing the new trend. But military experts and defense officials speculate that the decline in casualties in Iraq and an economic downturn at home mean more Americans see themselves joining the military or supporting someone who does.
The changing perceptions could be crucial for the next presidency, as the nation considers expanding the military even more to meet demands around the world. President-elect Barack Obama has hinted that military service is a centerpiece of his idea of national service.
Over the long term, if the trend holds, it could help increase the overall quality of the force and potentially improve upon its ethnic and economic diversity.
While the military continues to rate highly in public opinion polls – consistently above other national institutions – far fewer Americans are actually interested in joining it or seeing their son or daughter do so. And since 2003 when the US invaded Iraq, the willingness of American youth to serve in the military has decreased significantly.
Perceptions worsened with Iraq war
But new data shows that is changing.
About 11 percent of military-age individuals say they will "definitely" or "probably" be serving in the military in the next few years, up 2 percent since last year. While this is still low compared with figures prior to the Iraq war, it is the first such increase since then, according to new Pentagon data.
At the same time, perceptions of military service have either leveled out or begun to improve among parents, coaches, and teachers – "influencers" who Pentagon officials say are key to the success of their recruiting missions.
About 59 percent of adults now say they would support a young person joining the military. Their enthusiasm in recommending military service had waned since 2003 and remains far lower than it did prior to the invasion, but this is the first time it has increased since that time.
Pentagon officials are reluctant to characterize the results of the survey, which polled more than 3,000 youth ages 16 to 21. They say the uptick in positive attitudes toward military service are not yet conclusive.
Yet the changing attitudes don't come as a surprise to most analysts. "When the economy goes down, recruiting results go up," says Bernard Rostker, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow at RAND, a think tank in Washington.
Unemployment rates have increased – 6.5 percent nationally according to statistics released Friday – and that makes the military's health and education benefits and signing bonuses look more appealing.
Pentagon officials have long acknowledged that the economy can help recruiting. "That is a situation where more people are willing to give us a chance," said David Chu, the current manpower chief at the Pentagon in announcing the Pentagon's success in reaching the fiscal 2008 recruiting targets last month.
But it's not just the economy. More positive news from Iraq about a military that is seen as less engaged in heavy combat and more involved in rebuilding, is helping, say officers. And casualties are about the lowest they've been since the war began, with 14 fatalities in October.
Changes in perceptions of military service began to be seen a year ago, says one Marine officer who tracks recruiting, predating the economic downturn in recent months.
"I think the bad economy has less of an effect for us as recruiters than most people might think," says a Marine officer who conducts recruiting in the Midwest. He notes that the "target market" for recruiters is not laid off workers as much as high school students. And while parents are instinctively cautious about their children's decision to join the military, the officer added, it doesn't mean they are necessarily against it.
An expanding military
Ultimately, the greater interest in enlisting – including among blacks and Hispanics – could translate into an expansion in the enlisting pool, allowing the military to be more selective. It could help reduce, for example, the number of individuals enlisted with criminal backgrounds.
It remains unclear what impact an expanded American mission in Afghanistan would have on recruiting. But it's unlikely that even an expanded mission would approximate the scale of the five-year effort in Iraq.
That will be key as the military continues to grow to 547,000 in the Army and 202,000 in the Marine Corps in the next two years.