Guard acts to step up efforts for recruiting

New ad campaign, beefed-up benefits aim to stem shortfall

National Guard

December 18, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Once seen as a haven from the jungles of Vietnam or as a source of cash for college, the National Guard is struggling to reinvent itself in the age of terror with a bare-knuckled new ad campaign, hundreds of additional recruiters and a beefed-up financial package for its part-time soldiers.

But some active-duty officers and defense analysts doubt that the Guard can quickly turn around its weak recruiting. They say the shortfall could be the first ominous sign of a fraying of the 30-year-old all-volunteer force, both active-duty and reserve, because of the strain of repeat yearlong deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I wouldn't bet on their success," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, who predicted that offering more money for soldiers would help recruiting only "at the margins." The Guard's inability to maintain its force, he said, could mean trouble not only for its support of the active-duty military but also for its ability to respond to natural disasters at home.

With reservists accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq - a percentage expected to increase slightly next year and include 130 soldiers from a Maryland Guard infantry company - the National Guard is also struggling for recruits. It fell about 7,000 soldiers short last year of the 56,000 soldiers needed to maintain a 350,000-soldier force. Now the Guard is 10,000 soldiers short and facing an even bigger recruiting goal, 63,000 in the coming year.

Slow reaction

"It's tough. We're using the Guard and Reserve heavily," said Rick Stark, a retired Army colonel and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank that's studying the role of part-time soldiers. "The jury's out. They're not going to recruit their way out of it."

Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy recruiting and retention chief for the National Guard Bureau, admitted that officials failed to react quickly enough to the Guard's changing role, particularly the greater risk facing its soldiers without an increase in benefits. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 143 Guard soldiers have died there, and another 15 have been killed in Afghanistan in the three years since the fall of the Taliban, officials said.

"It comes down to what's the risk, what's the reward," said Jones, a voluble officer with an ad man's rapid-fire delivery. "We were slow in recognizing we were asking a lot of our young soldiers."

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, a former Baltimore schoolteacher who heads the National Guard Bureau, calls his soldiers "21st-century Minutemen," likening them to the 18th-century residents of Lexington and Concord who left their plows to pick up muskets.

While acknowledging that "we're in a more difficult recruiting environment," he sees recruiting recovering by late next summer, spurred by better benefits packages and a recruiting force that will swell from the current 2,700 to 4,100.

Post-9/11 commitment

Stark said that while additional benefits and recruiters should help, the Guard must also work hard to retain soldiers. So far, he said, there is good news: The Guard attrition rate declined to 17 percent this year, from 19.6 percent in 2000.

"Folks who joined after 9/11 are very committed," said Jones, adding that Guard units deploying overseas have a higher retention rate than those within the United States. "We're finding out they're sticking with us."

Seated in an office outside Washington whose walls are covered with Guard posters and memorabilia, Jones quickly lists the Guard's expanding benefits for those who sign up for a six-year hitch or re-enlist.

Enlistment bonuses are increasing from $6,000 to as much as $10,000, he said. Also, retention bonuses for soldiers coming off active duty have been boosted to $15,000 from $5,000, matching the peak bonuses for regular soldiers that were announced in August.

The Guard is also doubling the size of student loans it will help repay, to $20,000, and raising tuition assistance to $250 per credit hour, up to a total $4,500 per year.

At the same time, the Guard is going to spend 60 percent more on advertising next year - about $68 million, up from $42 million.

"The American Soldier" campaign features gritty testimonials from Guard soldiers fighting insurgents in Iraq and helping to rebuild the country. The campaign uses patriotic recruiting posters that show surging tanks, hovering attack helicopters and stern-faced young men.

The new campaign replaces posters that focused on education benefits. In Baltimore, for example, Guard officials removed a sign at the 5th Regiment Armory that read "Get Your Degree Tuition Free," and posted one that proclaims, "I am an American Soldier and Proud to Serve, Maryland National Guard, 1-800-Go-Guard."

`Never accept defeat'

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