Military Update: Army National Guard seeks to boost recruitment
To reverse a sharp drop in recruiting since citizen soldiers became 40 percent of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve this month announced increases in enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses.
But in an interview for this column, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the Army “probably is two years away” from moving to shorter tours for members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yearlong combat tours, he conceded, aggravate the recruiting problem.
“I would like to get to a rotation where we do nine months active duty tour time with six months boots-on-the-ground,” said Blum. That would cut current rotations by half.
“But we are not ready to go there yet,” Blum said.
The chief of Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, told The Dallas Morning News in mid-December that Reserve recruiting is in a “precipitous decline” that, if not stemmed, could reopen debate over a military draft.
Blum, in our interview, said Guard recruiting too has dropped sharply, particularly from among the pool of members leaving active duty. Before fiscal 2004, the Army Guard got 50 percent of recruits from the prior-service pool.
“It was an automatic. It was a given,” said Blum.
That has plummeted to 35 percent, he said, leaving the Guard short more than 8,000 members through September. The gap has widened since then to 12,600. Army Guard recruiters in October and November, the first two months of fiscal 2005, signed only 70 percent of their monthly goals.
Blum said it reflects a dramatic change in the nature of Guard service since Sept. 11, 2001, from a strategic reserve force that drilled on weekends to an operational force critical to a nation at war. One quarter of Guard personnel have been deployed, continually, for the past three years, he said.
So to servicemembers leaving active duty, enlistment in the Guard isn’t the comfortable option it once was, not at least if their goal is to avoid another dangerous tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Thirty-six percent of U.S. soldiers in Iraq in the current rotation are Guard members. Counting Army reservists, too, citizen soldiers are 40 percent of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are suffering wounds in proportion to their numbers in theater, Blum said. Fatalities are proportionally lower. Army statistics show one of every 402 active duty soldiers sent to Iraq has died versus one of every 606 Army Guard members.
The dearth of prior-service enlistments has forced the Guard to rely to try to sign more inexperienced recruits. The non-prior service target for 2005 is 65,000, up 9,000 from last year. That effort got off to a slow start.
In answer, the Guard will expand its recruiting force by 50 percent, training 1,400 more in a few months to reach 4,100 total recruiters.
“They’ll hit the street around the 1st of February,” Blum said.
The Army Guard and Reserve this month also raised bonuses. Non-prior service recruits entering critical skills will get $10,000 for a six-year hitch, half paid on completing individual training and half after four years’ service. Guard recruits electing specialties critical to states will get $6,000.
Also, a $2,000 bonus is available to Guard new enlistees who enter service in “off-peak” months of October through May.
To attract prior-service members, the Army Guard and Reserve offer up to $15,000 now for a six-year hitch, half paid upon enlistment and half after four years. The previous maximum was $8,000.
The Guard also offers three-year options: $7,500 for an initial three years, and $6,000 for a second three. Other new Guard initiatives involve enlistment extension bonuses, specialty conversion bonuses, student loan repayment incentives and a GI-Bill education “kicker.” Officers are being offered higher accession bonuses.
Blum, in pressing for shorter combat tours, points out that a yearlong stint in Iraq or Afghanistan means far more than a year away from family and civilian jobs for reserve component members.
“The active guy goes back to his job — at Fort Campbell, Fort Lewis, wherever — and gets assimilated right back into his life. The National Guard [member] has already spent three or four months in a MOB [mobilization] station before a year boots- on-the-ground. So it’s not really a year. It’s 16 months. Then, it’s another two months from the time they leave theater until they leave active duty for about an 18-month interruption of their civilian life, civilian job and civilian education.
“We’re not complaining about it,” he said “but I want truth in lending.”
Asked if the Army can sustain a National Guard of 350,000, given the changed nature of service, Blum paused a long moment before answering.
“If after some period of time — and it’s too soon to say now — we find that we’re going to have to have a small, more capable National Guard, then we will make that adjustment,” he said.
For now, Blum said, he’s optimistic that more recruiters and bigger bonuses will attract enough volunteers to return the Guard to full strength.
“We’re sustaining wartime casualties and sending people in harm’s way. So it requires us to recruit with a different message. We’re not bringing people in for college [benefits] or vocational training. We’re bringing them in for service to their nation,” Blum said. “And their state.”
“The crucible of war,” he added, “will purify the force and separate the true citizen soldiers from those … not willing to make the sacrifice.”
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