Army hopes it has enough in reserve

Military: With forces stretched, will reservists decide to re-up?

Crisis In Iraq

April 21, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Richard Armermann returned home to Harrisburg in December from nine months in Iraq, his hitch in the Army Reserve had expired. The rules required him to wait 90 days before deciding whether to re-enlist.

Armermann enjoyed being a soldier, but his family - a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son born only three days before he went overseas - proved the decisive factor. So, after 11 years in the Reserves, he opted out. Three friends in his unit did the same.

"Everybody over there talks about it," Armermann, 28, said of deployed reservists. "You have a few days that aren't so bad and think, `Maybe I'll stay in.' Then something happens, and you're like, `That's it. I'm getting out.'"

With the Reserves and the National Guard filling an ever-busier role in military forces already stretched to the limit, re-enlistment decisions have become a worrisome issue for the Pentagon, especially because the 90-day waiting period has begun expiring for many citizen soldiers who were part of the first lengthy deployments to Iraq.

"This is going to be a real crunch time," said Al Schilf, a spokesman for the Army Reserve. "This is the longest that Reserve soldiers have been deployed, and we have to be realistic. We have torn them away from their employers and their families for a year, so the next few months are going to be very telling."

Even before now, the Army Reserve was falling short of re-enlistment goals. For the past 18 months, ending March 31, re-enlistment ran about 7 percent behind the Army's stated goal - 1,507 soldiers fewer than the target of 21,243.

Recruiting efforts have helped compensate for some of the shortfall. In signing up new soldiers, the Army Reserve has exceeded its goal for every year since 2000, although the goals have been steadily decreasing - from a target of 41,961 recruits in 2000 to only 21,000 for the current year.

For the National Guard - the other force of "part-time soldiers" pressed into full-time deployments - the opposite trends are in play. Re-enlistment is up, but recruiting is slumping.

`End strength'

Neither force has taken a hit to its so-called "end strength," the number most vital to the Pentagon because it measures the total number of available troops. But the generals presiding over the Guard and the Reserves have asked Capitol Hill for help with bonuses and other incentives to boost recruiting and retention.

"Right now, active-duty soldiers in the same foxhole with these young men can re-enlist with a tax-free reenlistment bonus, and we cannot access that," Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee two weeks ago. "I think we need to address the policy."

At the same hearing, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, pointed out, "Today as we speak, nearly 60,000 Army Reserve soldiers are on active duty in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and the continental United States and elsewhere around the world."

An additional 151,000 Army Reservists, he said, were either training and preparing for mobilization or resting and refitting after just being demobilized.

The news of these deployments makes the selling job tougher for Staff Sgt. Marcello Dean, an Army recruiter for both the full-time forces and the Reserves.

Based at a storefront office at Mondawmin Mall, where high unemployment in the surrounding neighborhood makes soldiering more attractive, Dean said that "Will I go to war?" is the most frequently asked question by prospective reservists.

His usual answer:

"There might be a possibility. But the truth is, I was in the Army Reserve for nine years and have never been deployed."

Serving in the reserves is still marketed as a "part-time job with full-time benefits," emphasizing an enlistment bonus of up to $8,000 and college money worth far more.

"If someone comes in and he tells me he's looking for money for college, then I know he's looking at the reserves, because college is his main focus," Dean said.

Change of plans

But some recruits who joined up thinking they would be able to make it through college interrupted only by training one weekend per month and a few weeks per summer - the usual commitments for reserves and guard members who haven't been deployed - are discovering that isn't always the case anymore.

Sgt. Brian Heinsman, an Army Reservist in the 324th Military Police Battalion based in Pennsylvania, which returned in December from Iraq, said, "One friend of mine is a junior in college, but he should be finishing his master's right now."

Iraq wasn't the only lengthy deployment of his battalion, which draws members from Maryland, Pennsylvania and other nearby states. He was deployed earlier to Bosnia. Others wound up at Fort Detrick. He helps with retention efforts but understands why some of his fellow soldiers agonize when the time for re-enlistment arrives.

"It's a tough decision," he said. "I've been deployed 2 1/2 of the last three years, and looking into the future we know it's just a matter of time before there's another one."

The decision is apparently tougher for prospective recruits as well. They've seen the same headlines about intensified fighting and prolonged deployments.

So have their parents.

Recruits who are 17, and need parental permission, are sometimes overruled by worried moms and dads, Dean said.

Impact on sign-ups

Such worries seem to be affecting the local numbers of sign-ups. The Baltimore recruiting battalion, which includes Dean's office and other recruiting stations in the city and suburbs, achieved its enlistment goals for reservists in 2002 and 2003.

But during the first six months of the current fiscal year, ending March 31, the battalion missed its goal of 729 recruits by 161, a shortfall of 22 percent.

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