Guard Officials Expect to Meet Recruiting Goals
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
National Guard officials are nearly on track to meet their recruitment and retention goals for the year despite fears that the ongoing military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan would keep people from enlisting in the part-time military force.
The Guard's two components, the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, planned to sign up 47,500 new members by Sept. 30 to achieve a nationwide force level of 457,000. They are currently about 7,300 troops short of that goal.
The apparent recruiting success flies in the face of concerns of critics - including some governors - who've said the guard's membership is likely to dwindle because U.S. overseas commitments and deployment uncertainties caused by the war on terrorism have strained the force to the breaking point.
"This guard is not ready for this challenge," Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), one of the Iraq war's most vocal opponents, said at July's annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Seattle. "I suspect this may have an impact on recruitment."
The 1st Battalion of Indiana's 152nd National Guard Regiment, which recently spent a year in Iraq, is a case in point. Two thirds of the members of that unit, which typically retains about 85 percent of its members, have declined to re-enlist over the last 21 months.
By some estimates, the National Guard and reserves are providing 40 percent of the military's total force strength in Iraq.
Because governors rely on the National Guard to combat domestic crises, the recent deployments are an issue of state concern. In nine states - Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington - more than half of the Army National Guard is either deployed or awaiting deployment. Nationwide, the figure is 37 percent.
The Army National Guard is more than three times the size of the Air Guard, and it has faced much higher call-up rates.
Guard officials are reporting success on the tricky issue of retention. They say there's been no widespread decline in re-enlistment numbers despite predictions that the dropout rate will rise if high troop deployment continues.
To ensure that membership numbers stay on track, the Army Guard is shifting its recruiting efforts to focus more on new guard members, rather than relying on retiring regular Army members and Army Reservists. The shift is prompted primarily by data indicating that fewer soldiers are transferring to the Army guard once they finish active duty than originally projected.
"Prior service" soldiers typically account for half of the new guard members recruited each year, but as of June 30 the Army Guard had signed up only 42 percent of the number of soldiers it hoped to lure this year from the full-time military and Reserves.
A U.S. Army effort to boost total enlistment as well as the military's "stop-loss policy" are factors that have contributed to the "prior service" shortfall, said Reginald Saville, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that oversees guard activities.
The Army's "stop-loss" policy bars active-duty soldiers and reservists on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from leaving their units for 90 days before deployment until 90 days after they return, even if their volunteer commitment ends during that time.
Saville said recruiting new guard members is a more expensive and difficult task than funneling those leaving active duty into the Guard, but he remains optimistic.
"They might make it happen," Saville said. "It'll be interesting ... "The year's not over yet."
Guard deployment its impact on the part-time force's recruiting and retention prospects as well as its consequences for governors has been a topic of both formal and informal discussion among governors. Some state leaders met behind closed doors with senior Pentagon officials to discuss guard issues, such as how to replace deployed units when natural disasters strike, at the National Governors Association meeting in Seattle last month.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D), who leads a state frequently battered by hurricanes, and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), who leads a state often ravaged by wildfires, were chosen to serve as liaisons between the governors and the National Guard Bureau a setup aimed to give states more say about National Guard deployments.
Democratic state leaders, including Vilsack, Oregon Gov. (and retired Marine) Ted Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Gary Locke, have been the most outspoken critics of the Pentagon's reliance on the guard, but Republican governors reportedly have privately expressed concerns as well.
"As more and more National Guard units are being federalized that does impact the force levels and the ability of governors to call on the guard in the event of an emergency," said Mark Snider, Kempthorne's senior communications advisor.'
The role of National Guard members in long-term military efforts also has become an issue on the presidential race. Accepting his party's nomination for president July 29 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Sen. John Kerry pledged to grow the active military by 40,000 and "end the back-door draft of the National Guard and reservists."