WASHINGTON – The Army National Guard fell slightly short of its recruiting goal this year, rebounding from a severe deficit in 2005 and exceeding its goal for re-enlistments, defense officials said Tuesday.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the results for the 2006 budget year that ended Sept. 30 were the best since he took the post more than three years ago, and he said the outcome was far brighter than was forecast a year ago when the Guard fell 20 percent short of its recruiting goal.
"While we're being stretched and while we're being stressed" by the demands of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "we still are demonstrating an ability to grow at an amazing rate and to re-enlist at an amazing rate, which is all counterintuitive," Blum said in an Associated Press interview at his Pentagon office.
Blum said he was not authorized to discuss specific numbers, but other officials said the Guard achieved 99 percent of its goal of 70,000 recruits. Recruiting figures for all the military services are due to be announced by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office next week. The active-duty Army has already announced that it exceeded its goal of 80,000 recruits after falling nearly 7,000 short the year before.
The Army National Guard, which began the 2006 budget year with about 332,000 citizen soldiers, has boosted its ranks to about 346,000, the officials said. Blum predicted that the Guard would reach its authorized strength of 350,000 by the end of December, defying predictions from many inside the Defense Department only a year ago that the Guard could not recruit well enough to increase its total numbers.
Blum attributed the improved recruiting result in part to the fact that fewer Guardsmen were deployed in Iraq this past year and thus had more direct influence in their own communities on encouraging others to join. In 2005 the Guard had several ground combat brigades in Iraq, compared to only one now. The Guard also has used financial incentives and a larger cadre of recruiters to sign up more young people.
The Guard's ability to grow over the past year may raise questions about an earlier Pentagon decision to reduce the number of Guard combat brigades from 34 to 28. If the Guard can reach and maintain its authorized strength of 350,000 this coming year there may be calls in Congress to reverse the decision on cutting brigade numbers.
The Army is hard pressed to keep enough active-duty combat brigades trained, equipped and ready for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has triggered a discussion at high levels of the Pentagon recently on whether to increase the size of the active-duty Army or, alternatively, make more frequent use of the Guard.