Despite recruiting problems, Md. Guard sees turnaround

Reservists: The Iraq war and extended deployments have hurt, but officials say citizen-soldiers are stepping up.

December 14, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

By raising his right hand and pledging an oath to country, Koji Miyagi did something yesterday that might make many Americans shudder.

He joined the Army National Guard.

And Miyagi, 28, of Rosedale, didn't sign up for just any unit.

He rejoined Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, specifically because its 130 part-time soldiers will be deployed from Maryland to Iraq early next year.

"It's like a family," said Miyagi, a Department of Defense police officer at Aberdeen Proving Ground who left the state's Army Guard about 1 1/2 years ago when his enlistment expired.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about the Maryland National Guard cited a report in Monday's editions of USA Today about the likelihood of Army National Guard soldiers to be killed in Iraq. USA Today reported yesterday that its analysis had relied on incorrect information provided by the military and said they could not provide a precise count.

"A lot of guys have never been overseas before, and I think I can help them out because I have."

As the Army National Guard celebrated its 368th birthday yesterday, Miyagi's enlistment ceremony at Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory offered an encouraging counterpoint to the Guard's struggle to attract all the citizen-soldiers it says it needs.

The Army National Guard, which has grown from four Massachusetts militia units in 1636 to almost 350,000 troops today, exists in every state, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories. Its troops principally respond to natural disasters and other crises.

Increasingly, they have been mobilized for federal service during wartime, causing some to shy away from what once was envisioned as a part-time job.

Formerly expected to serve one weekend a month and complete two weeks of training a year, many of these reservists have been mobilized repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001, serving in wars abroad and guarding airports and military installations at home.

Last year, the Army National Guard fell about 7,000 soldiers short of its nationwide recruiting goal of 56,000. The shortfalls continued in the first two months of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

In November, for example, the Army Guard set a goal of attracting 7,600 new soldiers. It missed that mark by more than 2,100.

Many blame the recruitment gap on the war in Iraq. The Army National Guard has shouldered much of the load, deploying about 37,000 soldiers. Today, more than 40 percent of the 138,000 troops on the ground in Iraq are members of the Guard or Reserve.

The perils are significant. Some 1,300 American service members have died since the invasion of Iraq. An analysis published yesterday in USA Today found that Army National Guard soldiers were about one-third more likely to be killed in Iraq than full-time, active-duty soldiers serving there.

Finding people to fill the ranks has been a challenge.

Faced with the strong possibility of being called up and deployed, many recruits simply choose to join the active-duty forces where the benefits are better, said David R. Segal, a University of Maryland professor of sociology.

"People who are joining the Guard today are not just joining for economic reasons. It's no longer moonlighting," he said.

Another time-honored avenue for filling the Guard's ranks - signing up former active-duty soldiers - has dried up because the Army is refusing to let soldiers serving in combat zones leave the service.

"That's our big problem today," said Mark Allen, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, based in Crystal City, Va. "It's a different mindset for us."

Now the Guard is zeroing in on recruits with no prior military service, scouring high schools and shopping malls, mostly for people under age 35.

Compared with other states, the Maryland Army National Guard has faced an especially difficult time.

The state ranked 43rd out of 50 states in its ability to attract new recruits for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to the National Guard Bureau. Maryland Army National Guard recruiters said they signed up 915 new soldiers during the same time period, about 28 percent below their target of 1,263.

Officials said the downward trend has begun to change.

"The trend is now going in the right direction," said Lt. Col. Kevin Preston, who recently took over the Maryland Army National Guard's recruiting effort.

The Army Guard in Maryland failed to meet recruiting goals in October and November. But gains expected in December should enable it to meet its overall goal for the last quarter of the calendar year, Preston said.

The Guard's manpower problem, together with overseas deployment, is not a cause for great alarm, said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Dennis R. Schrader, director of the governor's office of homeland security, said about 9 percent "of the Guard is deployed, so we still have 90 percent here."

The Maryland National Guard maintains a "ready reaction force" trained to respond to terrorism, Schrader said. A planned civil support team that would react to threats of chemical, biological and nuclear attack will also manned by the Guard.

In some ways, the three recruits sworn in yesterday at the Baltimore armory bucked the new recruitment strategy. Each had performed military service before signing up for the Maryland Army National Guard.

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