Many soldiers might recognize their local Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army from the ceremonies the aides attend or the help they have provided to troops or their families.
What most people don’t know is the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army (CASA) program has operated for almost 100 years and there are over 100 civilian aides in the U.S. and its territories. No other military service has a program like CASA that connects the service’s mission to the public in each of the 50 states and U.S. territories.
Just before World War I, a group of civilian volunteers began the program as part of a training regimen to supply the Army with leaders. The program continued with broad interaction between CASAs and the Army, with specific duties left to each aide’s discretion. In 1950, the program was redesigned to meet the Army’s need for civilian liaisons, and the primary mission of CASA became to promote good relations between the Army and the public.
Today, the program remains much the same. CASAs are still uncompensated volunteers who are vital to Army efforts to tell the service’s story to the public and help recruiters connect to potential recruits and centers of influence within their communities. CASAs are business and civic leaders with significant ties in their respective states and communities. Every CASA has the Army’s best interests at heart, and many have served in the military.
As the percentage of Americans with military service continues to decrease, the aides’ importance in telling the Army story in the local community increases. Each state and territory has at least one CASA, with additional aides added depending on population densities and areas of interest to the Army.
“Living in a state without an active-duty Army installation, many in our state’s population have little to no interaction with the military,” said Craig Wilhelm, CASA for Oregon. “I can talk about my own experiences as a soldier and how my Army service continues to shape my successes in the private sector.” Wilhelm is a West Point graduate and Army veteran with a background as a small-business owner.
While not all CASAs have prior military service, each one loves the Army and soldiers. CASAs draw from their own resumes and from within their professional circles, which include business, finance, education, engineering, technology, science, law, public administration, media and medicine. The variety of backgrounds allows CASAs to reach a more diverse constituency than the Army could engage through traditional means.
The newest CASA, Colorado’s Bill Hanzlik, said: “I have been blessed through my career with many wonderful roles. As a co-founder of a children’s nonprofit, an NBA player and coach, Denver Nuggets color analyst, and a higher education trustee for three different Colorado institutions, I am looking at how I can leverage my network of experts and how they, too, can support the soldiers and families of our proud United States military in a variety of ways.”
CASAs are charged with three main priorities to help advance the Army’s mission:
- Act as liaisons to the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve in their regions.
- Focus on recruiting. With less than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds eligible to join the military, CASAs must maintain a constant presence in local communities to assist recruiting efforts, helping the U.S. Army Recruiting Command gain access to America’s young people; sharing the Army story with parents, teachers and other influencers; and helping connect potential recruits to Army recruiters.
- Support soldiers and their families as they transition out of uniform by partnering with the Soldier for Life Program. Soldiers and their families have sacrificed to protect Americans’ freedom, and they have earned our support and assistance as they transition.
CASAs are especially qualified to support these priorities because of their vast and expanding personal connections. “CASAs are unique individuals who have ties to every facet of the community’s fabric: politics, government, nonprofits, universities and many more social groups,” said Mario Diaz, CASA for Arizona (North).
Recently, CASAs have further focused their activities to assist with recruiting. Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, commander of Recruiting Command, appreciates the aides’ efforts.
“CASAs are force multipliers for our recruiters,” he said. “They have helped us gain access to community leaders and develop partnerships we could not have made on our own. They have been very impactful to helping shape a positive Army recruiting message in many of our key cities.”
The ways CASAs help put recruits “in boots” varies based on the needs and strengths of their communities. “The Army is about opportunities for higher education, and the recruitment we have been using for access is the pathway to education and entry into the civilian workforce,” said Janet Chin, CASA for California (Greater Los Angeles). “Over the past decade, we’ve built relationships with respected industry professionals who stand side by side as our force multipliers, speaking on our behalf, saying, ‘If you want to be an engineer, the best way to start is in the Army.’ ”
Wilhelm noted, “As a CASA, I work closely with state and local leaders to spread the word about how military service benefits the community. These engagements help promote positive public perception, support community involvement in the well-being of soldiers and their families, and offer creative ways to augment our Army’s mission.”
Recently, Wilhelm and local Army recruiters attended a school scholarship ceremony to honor graduates who enlisted in the Army and received Guaranteed Reserve Forces Duty Minuteman Scholarships from the U.S. Army Cadet Command.
“Helping these recruiters showcase Army service as a ‘big deal’ is a way CASAs can help inspire and encourage today’s youth who are searching for their future endeavors,” Wilhelm said. “Many have not previously considered the Army because they don’t understand what we have to offer. Presenting certificates of service and scholarships at these schools highlights the Army as a viable career path for these students—i.e., hands-on job training, tuition assistance, being a part of serving something bigger than themselves.”
The Army recognizes that it must continue to keep up with the times and anticipate the future. The CASA program, too, is evolving to try to mirror the Army’s diversity in the ranks and continue to be representative of the communities it serves. CASAs range in age from 44 to 85. About two-thirds of them have former military experience. For those CASAs with prior service, the program allows them to stay connected to the Army. “As a Soldier for Life, I see no better way to come full circle than to serve in this capacity as a CASA,” Chin said.
For the one-third who don’t have former military experience, like Diaz, serving as a civilian aide allows him to honor those who have volunteered to serve. In either case, Chin said, “CASAs are volunteers who are genuinely superpatriotic and act as the public relations arm for the Army in many ways. We are a representation of a cross section of industry experience with a range and wealth of experiences that the general public can use as a resource to connect to the Army.”
This variety helps CASAs remain relevant when they go into their communities and connect recruiters with those who have the propensity to serve. “As CASAs, we need to focus on the most effective recruiting methods that relate to and inspire our next generation of youth, such as tapping into the latest trends like esports competitions. Ultimately, we need to find the best soldiers from across the country, and it is great to see the investment the Army is making in what before may have been deemed nontraditional recruiting methods,” Wilhelm said.
Chin agreed. “In my area, Los Angeles is very much representative of what our country looks like. We are diverse, not only in culture and ethnicity, but we are also industry-rich with a talent pool to match.” Chin is using media talent to communicate about Army recruiting. “I’m currently working on using comedians or R&B songwriters to include positive messages about service in the Army in their work.”
CASAs are personally selected by the secretary of the Army and serve at his will. Although they are unpaid, they have the protocol status of a three-star general to demonstrate their importance to the secretary. Each CASA is appointed to an initial two-year term with the potential for renewal every two years up to 10 years.
“To remain relevant and focused on the secretary’s priorities, the CASA program must be more nimble geographically, refresh talent and allow others to serve,” said Kathleen Miller, administrative assistant to the secretary of the Army, who oversees the program on behalf of the secretary.
Recently, the program’s focus has shifted to include CASAs to support the recruiting strategy in the Army’s 22 priority cities. “Our Army is people, and we must successfully compete for people who will be the Army of the future. The Army has recently taken steps to ensure recruiting has the resources necessary for success. To assist, we are on track to have at least two CASAs in each of the 22 priority cities for recruiting in the next year,” Miller said.
The CASA program is seeking qualified nominees for a number of vacant or additional positions across the U.S. Although military experience is not required, nominees must have both the interest and ability to facilitate meaningful interactions between the Army’s recruiters and youth with an inclination to serve. Ideal CASA nominees will be able to relate to the next generation with attributes, experiences and community connections that can further support the Army’s recruitment goals and retention initiatives, and be a strong local voice for leadership, soldiers and families.
Interested nominees should email [email protected].
After 100 years, civilian aides continue to be an important force multiplier for Army leaders.
As Diaz said, “The CASA program and its team members are the backbone of civilian liaison for the secretary of the Army. Working together with soldiers, including Reserve and Guard soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of Department of the Army civilians, CASAs make a powerful advocacy team for the United States Army.”