Mission: Readiness Q&A: How to Help Our Students Succeed

Employers throughout the country, including right here in Chattanooga, are struggling to fill vacant jobs because many of our students are not workforce ready. 

According to Department of Defense data, 71% of today’s young Americans (ages 17-24) could not meet the basic minimum requirements to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. This data also shows that most young Americans are unable to serve in the military due to poor education, obesity, or a record of crime or drug abuse.  

Just like our  Chattanooga 2.0 coalition members, there are many organizations in the United States working to support students from cradle through career. One such organization, Mission: Readiness, was created by a group of retired admirals and generals with a similar goal in mind– to improve outcomes for students, especially at-risk children, through smart investments in programs that work to strengthen families, bolster the workforce, and reduce crime.

Over the last 10 years, Mission: Readiness membership has grown to over 750 retired admirals and generals in all 50 states.  Since its founding, members have sounded the alarm about these dangerous societal trends, their implications for national security, and public policy solutions that can ensure young people are prepared to succeed in the military and in life.

We recently spoke with Mission: Readiness National Director Ben Goodman and Mission: Readiness member Major General Leslie Purser, U.S. Army, Retired about their experiences helping students find pathways to success.

Ben Goodman, National Director, Mission: Readiness

How do Mission: Readiness members impact change?

Our members advocate for research-based policy solutions at the state and federal level that are proven to keep kids in shape, in school, and out of trouble so that military service is an option as they enter adulthood.  As retired military leaders, our members are concerned about the shrinking pool of eligible recruits, but understand that when only 29% of young people are healthy, well educated, and on the right side of the law, it’s not just the U.S. Armed Forces that are threatened.

Have you seen success in affecting any big issues?

Over the last 10 years, our members have achieved policy victories in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and across the country. One of our proudest victories was helping to pass the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act, ensuring that elementary students in Tennessee have access to meaningful and regular physical education. 

Our members continue to be active in working to ensure that kids have access to high-quality early education and care, nutritious school food, and regular physical activity inside and outside of school.

Major General Leslie Purser, U.S. Army, Retired; Member, Mission: Readiness

What is your military background?
I enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) in 1980 and earned a three-year scholarship in 1981. I served for 37 years in the Army, first on active duty and then the Reserves when my children were born, in order to manage both family and career. I have served at all levels of command and staff and retired two years ago, with my last assignment at the Pentagon working manpower policy.  I loved every minute of my service in the Army. My kids are both officers in the Army, currently serving in Europe, and my husband retired from the Army in 2000. We’re truly an Army family.

Why did you choose to become a member of Mission: Readiness?
While working at the Pentagon, a Mission: Readiness representative came in to speak to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, for Training, Readiness and Mobilization, about the work of the organization. I was searching for opportunities to engage upon my upcoming retirement. I thought that it would be a great organization to support and that I could provide assistance in my new home state of Tennessee.

Of all the issues addressed by Mission: Readiness members, which are you most passionate about?
While I care deeply about many of the issues Mission: Readiness works on, I am most passionate about improving physical fitness among people. I always prioritized a healthy lifestyle during my military service, so I’m deeply concerned that 31% of youth would be disqualified for military service due to obesity.  

The earlier that children develop healthy lifestyles, the more likely they will stay healthy–adolescents who are overweight have a staggering 70 percent chance of being obese in adulthood.  That’s why I am proud of Mission: Readiness’ work to help pass the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act, which requires every Tennessee elementary student to have at least two physical education classes per week taught by a licensed teacher.  We have more work to do, but that foundation will make a meaningful difference for kids across the state.

Additionally, I have also been active in Mission: Readiness efforts to ensure that young people grow up in safe and healthy environments.  Last fall, I participated in a roundtable with Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy, Chattanooga Chamber CEO Christy Gillenwater, and Congressman Chuck Fleischmann about the impact that parental substance abuse can have on children.

Parental substance abuse is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which can hurt a child’s chance of growing up to be a healthy, productive citizen and limit their career options.

I have spoken to a number of neonatal nurses in Tennessee, who have seen firsthand how dangerous and heartbreaking the opioid crisis has been. 

From your perspective, why does high-quality education make a difference in public safety, national security, and the future workforce?
Today, 73% of young Tennesseans could not serve in the military due to poor education, obesity, or a disqualifying record of crime or drug abuse. 

Research overwhelmingly shows that high-quality early learning and care programs can help kids stay in school, in shape, and out of trouble so that they are prepared to succeed in the military or at whatever they choose in life.

Research overwhelmingly shows that high-quality early learning and care programs can help kids stay in school, in shape, and out of trouble so that they are prepared to succeed in the military or at whatever they choose in life.

From my own experience, I know that understanding the value of education is crucial. I am from a small town and had no intention of going to college, I simply wanted to manage the local restaurant where I worked as a waitress. My father pushed me to attend college, in fact, he insisted we all go. Given our large family, funding was not readily available, but the ROTC scholarship gave me what I needed. I currently mentor cadets from local high schools and universities, and my personal opinion is that they should take the opportunity to go and explore the world, and see as much as possible. I tell them that if they want to return to where they came from, that’s fine, but not to limit themselves by never leaving the safety and comfort of home.

I feel that the earlier you start, the better off you are, resulting in more inspiration, enthusiasm, and accomplishment. Go out and see the world, and go for your dream. Don’t settle for the mundane.

If you could make sure that the entire nation heard one thing about education, what would it be?

The value of education is limitless. Never stop learning.

If you’re from a small town, you may never see what’s out there for if you don’t venture out. When you do get out and experience other cultures and lifestyles, you learn how valuable education can be. The earlier the start, the more confident you become. I tried to do that with my kids, and saw that confidence, energy, and independence grow in them from a young age. This placed them ahead of their class in school, and in a better position to thrive.

If someone agreed with you that things need to change, but they don’t know how they can help, do you have any advice?
Get involved and stay involved, in whatever area you choose–your community, issues areas of interest, mentoring young people, etc.  Learn about how you can volunteer your time and expertise to ensure success. Everyone has something they are good at; share that.



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