CORAOPOLIS, Pa. – Increasing numbers of soldiers are deciding not to join the Army National Guard (search) after they leave active duty, a trend so troubling that the Guard is hiring 1,400 more recruiters to reverse it.
The Guard's new recruiters — plus its 2,700 already on the job — will be aiming to get high schoolers and 20-somethings to sign up like they never have before.
In fiscal 2004, the Guard had expected 7,100 soldiers to sign up after active duty tours. Instead, only 2,900 did — not even half. As a result, what's supposed to be a 350,000-member organization had just 342,918 soldiers when the year closed out on Sept. 30.
"If a soldier is near the end of their term of service and looking to stabilize their life, they know the likelihood is they're going to be deployed if they join the Guard," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, spokesman for the Guard's headquarters in Arlington, Va.
In Pennsylvania, recruiters are enlisting just 200 of the 300 soldiers statewide they must sign up every month to keep the Pennsylvania Army National Guard 16,000 soldiers strong. Right now, according to spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, it has 14,982.
The National Guard is similar to the Reserves (search) in that soldiers sign up for part-time duty. Pennsylvania enlistees can join for three years, but most join for six because they get up to $70,000 in pay, bonuses and college tuition, including full-tuition at any of 14 state-owned universities. While reserve troops are always under the President's command, each state's Guard troops answer to the governor — unless they are called to active duty.
What's changed the face of the Guard is the increased likelihood of active duty deployment in the last decade, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The Pennsylvania Guard (search) used to be split about 60-40 between former active duty troops and civilian recruits; now its about 35-65, Cleaver said.
Recruiting younger civilians continues to be a challenge, though officials say those numbers are holding steady and should grow because the new recruiters will be targeting them.
The Guard used to sell recruits on the idea of spending just one weekend a month, plus two weeks in the summer, in uniform.
"On average, right now, its 100 days a year," said Cleaver, noting that average is skewed by some 4,500 Pennsylvania Guard troops in Iraq. "If you sign up, we are probably going to need you to go (to Iraq), or at least be in an environment where you're going to be needed more often."
"This is not your father's National Guard. The big joke used to be, 'It's one weekend off a month,'" Clever said.
But while the war in Iraq may be chasing former soldiers away, recruiter Sgt. 1st Class William Merriman said many younger recruits welcome their almost certain deployment.
Pvt. Frank Kelly, 22, was married with a 1-year-old daughter and new house when he signed up in April. He will probably ship out to Iraq with the 128th Forward Support Battalion by February.
"I didn't want nobody else fighting for my family and I wanted to fight for my country," said Kelly. He likes the service so much he may enlist full-time when he returns home.
"Basic training, they could have pushed you harder. It wasn't (tough) like it is in the movies," Kelly said. "I joined to get pushed to the limit and my limits weren't pushed yet."
"When he walked in the door, I didn't have to do any sell on him at all," Merriman said. "If they were all like him, I'd have the easiest job in the world."