ARLINGTON, Va. — The slump in the National Guard’s recruiting efforts is about to turn around, according to the three-star general in charge of the force.

“We have begun to recover,” Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters during a break in a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

The Guard has attracted 15,000 fewer recruits than hoped for at this point in fiscal 2005, Blum told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee on reserve matters.

Most of the shortfall is in the Army National Guard, although the Air National Guard “is about 400 people short of where we were last year,” Lt. Gen. Daniel James, director of the Air National Guard, told the subcommittee.

March was the National Guard’s “best recruiting month in 14 months,” Blum said, with 5,200 new recruits joining, compared to 3,800 new members signed up in February.

Blum said he is basing his assessment on the improved security situation in Iraq, as well as larger bonuses and benefits added by Congress in the fiscal 2005 defense budget and 2004 defense supplemental budgets.

Reserve component officials are all so very excited about Army officials’ statements last week that they are looking at the possibility of shorter deployments, Blum said.

Compared to the current “12 months boots on the ground” policy, plus pre- and postdeployment time, “A six-month rotation is a whole different dynamic,” Blum said. “It’s a much easier pill to swallow for the citizen soldier, his employer, and his family.”

However, even with the positive signs, “I don’t think [the National Guard’s recruiting recovery] will happen between now and the end of this fiscal year” on Oct. 1, Blum said.

The Marine Corps Reserve, meanwhile, “is going to meet its end-strength target this year,” its commander, Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, told the subcommittee.

But Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, was less optimistic than his counterparts.

The Army Reserve is authorized to have 205,000 soldiers, but “we will end this [fiscal] year, on 30 Sept., with 194,000 or so,” Helmly said.

The good news, the military leaders agreed, is that retention among experienced servicemembers remains strong — “on average, almost 100 percent,” in the Army Reserves, Helmly said.

Thomas Hall, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, attributed this to new bonuses for troops, including tax-free re-enlistment bonuses for reservists in combat zones.

“Bonuses make a difference,” Hall told the subcommittee.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee, pledged to support the Defense Department’s efforts to increase bonuses.

“I’m sold on the idea that flexibility and money matter,” Graham said.

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