Raising the bar

After years of struggling to fill recruitment goals, the National Guard is becoming more selective

April 12, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

Suddenly, it's a lot harder to get into the National Guard, and harder to stay in. Across Maryland and the nation, National Guard recruiters are demanding higher test scores and at least a high school degree - no more GEDs.

That's a big shift for the organization, which for years struggled - and often failed - to reach its recruiting goals.

Just a few months ago, 42-year-olds were enlisting. Today, no one over 35 is accepted. Don't ask for the waivers for misdemeanors or minor physical conditions that were freely handed out last year. They're gone. And those $20,000 signing bonuses? Forget it.

"We're looking for a better-quality recruit," said Brig. Gen. Alberto J. Jimenez, deputy commander of the Maryland Army National Guard. "And we can afford to be selective."

The bar is also rising for the 5,000 men and women already serving in Maryland's Army Guard.

"Our challenge is to ensure quality, by looking at every one of our soldiers to ensure that we tighten up standards. ... Obviously, those who don't rise up to expectations, we will begin reassessing their value to the organization in the future," said Jimenez, who learned exacting performance standards as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

The National Guard is likely to be busy in the years ahead with a rising demand for its expertise, particularly in shorter and more frequent deployments not only to Iraq and Afghanistan but across Europe and Africa, according to senior military and intelligence officers. That will leave little room for coasting, Jimenez said.

"Unfortunately, in tomorrow's environment there will be some soldiers who will be left behind," he said.

This seems a sharp turnaround for the National Guard, once a collection of sleepy neighborhood "camping clubs for men" intended to be used, if at all, in case of World War III.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the growing combat requirements of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars swiftly changed that. Guard units were spruced up with hard training and new gear, and deployed at a wartime pace, serving with distinction in some of the hardest fighting seen in a generation.

It was widely predicted, however, that these part-time soldiers - sent off to war for a year at a time while trying to hold on to full-time jobs and families back home - would quit in droves.

Anticipating the worst, the Guard hired battalions of new recruiters and relaxed some of its standards, raising the maximum age, lowering minimum acceptable scores on entrance exams and bending rules to accept those with minor criminal and drug violations.

But the anticipated exodus never happened. Nationwide, the Guard is brimming with soldiers - it has about 10,000 more than its authorized limit of 358,200.

Maintaining that force requires a tricky balance of those who retire each year, those who re-enlist and new recruits, said Grant Zachary, deputy for strength management for the Army National Guard.

National Guard soldiers are re-enlisting at a rate of more than 100 percent of goal, and the empty spaces left by the 18 percent of the Guard who retire each year are more than filled by new recruits.

Last month, the National Guard signed up 6,255 potential new soldiers across the country, about 1,200 over the goal. In Maryland, recruiters have already signed up 450 prospective soldiers for fiscal year 2009, a rate that will put the Guard over its manpower target, said Sgt. Maj. Nathan Weeks, who oversees the state's Guard recruiters.

Why the change? Even though the Guard is essentially a part-time job, it has "definitely benefited from the economy going down the toilet," said David R. Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Especially for midcareer soldiers, even a part-time paycheck can help make ends meet, he said.

And for high school graduates, the Guard can be a good deal, said Staff Sgt. Jason O'Hare, 24, a combat veteran and Guard recruiter in Glen Burnie. New soldiers get free tuition at Maryland state colleges and universities, and $328 a month tax-free for education expenses for attending full time after military training, he said. Privates first class earn an additional $230 a month in drill pay.

But it's not the money, said Jimenez. "The great majority of young men and women are coming in with the idea of service to state and nation," he said, adding that recruiters don't hide the fact that Guard soldiers are likely to face a major deployment at least every five years.

Still, there are soft spots in the state's recruiting picture.

Until recently, about half of those who signed enlistment papers failed to report for basic training, as required, within 24 months. The delay is meant to allow recruits to finish high school and deal with other personal commitments before being sworn into service and leaving for six months of training.

Jimenez and Weeks have launched an intense effort to keep new recruits engaged before they "ship" to basic, bringing them in twice a month for events such as marching drills, helicopter rides and fighting with padded pugil sticks.

Now, close to 80 percent of those who enlist actually make it to basic training. But the Maryland Guard still carries on its manpower books about 30 people who enlisted and then went missing, and the Guard is attempting to track them down, Jimenez said.

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