These 2 Marines Are the Service’s Top Recruiters. Here’s How They’re Navigating the Recruiting Crisis.

by Braxton Taylor

The Marine Corps recognized its top two recruiters across the service last week. Competing with more than 3,200 other recruiters in the Marine Corps, Gunnery Sgts. Russell Cowan and Tristan Wiggin earned the titles of top recruiter and runner-up, respectively.

“These recruiters are the hunter-gatherers,” Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Christopher Mahoney said Friday. “They are the ones who go out and sell inspiration to the best of America’s youth. They create motivation and then bring it into the Marine Corps.”

Overall, military recruiting has been in crisis over the last five years, though one branch — the Marine Corps — has managed to squeak by on its numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and kept recruiters away from community events, cutting them off from the primary demographic they tap to put new troops into military service.

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“We’re not going to pick … the low-hanging fruit,” Wiggin said. “We want the best of the best to maintain the structure of the Marine Corps. It’s a little bit more challenging, but at the same time … we need to maintain the Marine Corps’ strengths. And that’s why we are continuing to win as a branch.”

The Marine Corps, which also benefited from being the smallest branch outside of the Space Force, has been the only service to meet its recruiting numbers — sometimes by single digits. While the Corps says that it is again on track to meet its mission this year, that effort has not come without its challenges, according to recruiters and officials Military.com spoke to over the last week.

Less than one-quarter of the U.S. population is eligible for military service, meaning all branches have to duke it out in the recruiting arena for a dwindling pool of applicants.

Combined with political attacks, loss of public confidence, negative perceptions about recruiters, lack of interest in the military across the recruitable population, and the scramble to rebuild relationships with high schools post-pandemic, recruiters tasked with bringing in the next generation of Marines have their work cut out for them.

This year especially, the Marine Corps is facing a steep problem when it comes to those already in the pipeline to become Marines. According to data provided to Military.com, the number of recruits awaiting shipment to recruit training is at 22% for the start pool. Historically, that number has been at 53%, meaning that recruiters have to work that much harder to fill slots than they would have in previous years.

In an interview with Military.com, Cowan and Wiggin described the challenges they faced as recruiters and what they did to earn the top spots in the Marine recruiter food chain. The recruiters operate on opposite sides of the country, in California and Florida, respectively.

“There is no spiel, there is no convincing,” Cowan told Military.com last week after he and Wiggin were recognized in a ceremony during the Commandant’s Combined Awards Ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. “It’s just being honest with these kids and actually caring for these kids and setting up for a bright future.”

While Cowan said there is no spiel, selling that future includes overcoming the fact that only 23% of the eligible recruiting population meets the physical and educational requirements of the military, according to Marine Corps Recruiting Command. The Marine Corps also has some stricter entry requirements when it comes to things like tattoos compared to other branches.

“With that … we have to turn people who are interested away,” Cowan said. “Hand tattoos, neck tattoos. Some kids just for whatever reason can’t pass the [aptitude test], medical history … or even criminal history.”

Getting applicants in the door or obtaining access to certain schools also appeared to be a challenge, according to the recruiters. Marine Corps Recruiting Command measured low interest in the services overall, with the Corps garnering only 9% of male applicants and 3% of female applicants with a “propensity” to join the military.

Part of that lack of interest, according to the Marine Corps, is a widening military-civilian divide. Jim Edwards, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, told Military.com that “less than 1% of our nation’s population serves in the military, which results in an ever-widening gap with the public, reduces [the] pool of positive influencers, and erodes confidence in government institutions.”

That has left recruiters like Cowan and Wiggin to fill the gap. Some keys to their success, they said, have been demonstrating professionalism, not coming off as pushy, and being present in a way that may stand in for a parental or community figure for a potential applicant who may not have one.

“We essentially become their father figure,” Wiggin said, “which is probably one of the proudest things about being a recruiter, is being able to guide these young men and women.”

They also said overcoming misconceptions about themselves has challenged their efforts.

“Killing the misconception of a recruiter — because we’ve all heard horror stories one way or another about recruiters — starts with us two setting a new picture for recruiters,” Cowan said.

Misconceptions about the military overall — not just about recruiters who are “out to trap you if you come in the office,” according to Cowan, or ones who do not represent the professional conduct expected of the Marine Corps — form a large part of the recruiters’ uphill battles. For example, Wiggin told Military.com that he has parents and applicants come into his office assuming that joining the military means recruits would die in combat or automatically assume a combat role.

“I would say that’s probably one of the larger issues,” Wiggin said of the perception that joining the Marine Corps means automatically being put in a life-or-death situation.

Underpinning all of this is the toll that recruiting duty can have on Marines. Some, like Cowan, volunteered for it. Others, like Wiggin, were “voluntold” to be a recruiter. In 2019, a Marine Corps study reported that nearly one-third of recruiters will face divorce during their careers and that 60% of them will receive a mental health diagnosis, as opposed to less than one-quarter of their non-recruiter peers.

Part of that is the high pressure to make recruiting numbers across the force, and it being one of, if not the, most public-facing jobs that the Marine Corps has to offer. The service has recognized that pressure and the need for recruiters by incentivizing the job with special pay and preferred recruiting stations.

“The hardest part is the long, long hours,” Shenaya, Cowan’s spouse, told Military.com. “But when he comes home after, he just gives us his all — everything that he has left in his tank — he just gives it all to us.”

Cowan, who was inspired to join the Marine Corps by his own father, a Vietnam veteran, said that he wants to make recruiting a career, an option that the service offers for staff noncommissioned officers and above who want to make recruiting their full-time job.

Wiggin, an aviation Marine who said he was drawn into the Corps by a commercial on MTV and was hooked when he saw professional recruiters in their dress blues, isn’t so sure.

“I like my job too much, and I’ll go back to it,” he said.

Related: The Military Recruiting Outlook Is Grim Indeed. Loss of Public Confidence, Political Attacks and the Economy Are All Taking a Toll.

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