MACON, Ga. – Sgt. Dana Kline is so good at recruiting new National Guard soldiers that he's set to make a small fortune — $94,000 in bonuses.
Kline has managed to get 47 recruits over 11 months, earning him the state's Meritorious Service Medal and, so far, the highest bonus paid to anyone through the Guard Recruiting Assistance Program.
Through the program, Guard members are offered a $1,000 bonus for every person they sign up and another $1,000 when the recruit ships out to basic training. The program is credited with bringing in 25,000 new Guard members since its launch 15 months ago.
"Kline is the highest in the group," said Col. Mike Jones, chief of the recruiting and retention division of the National Guard Bureau in Washington. "But there are some folks who are on his heels."
Kline, who's not even a full-time military recruiter, has found many of his recruits on trips to area shopping malls, unemployment offices and schools.
"I like to recruit and to help guide young people's careers," said Kline, 33, of Macon. "I love to tell them about my experiences and the opportunities available in the Guard and let them decide for themselves."
So far, 135,000 Guard members have signed up to be recruiting assistants under the program, which started after the Army missed its recruiting target in 2005 by the widest margin since 1979.
Georgia's 136 full-time Army Guard recruiters typically must interview 10 people just to find one who qualifies, said Lt. Col. Thomas Carden, commander of the Georgia Army Guard's recruiting and retention battalion. He said the ratio for those helped by recruiting assistants like Kline is one to three.
After one to two hours of online training, the recruiting assistants can begin contacting prospective recruits in their communities. Eventually, the assistants connect prospects with full-time recruiters who help them sign contracts and schedule military aptitude and medical tests.
The assistant's job doesn't end there. They mentor recruits, even helping them with fitness training, until they leave for basic training.
Kline credits the military with transforming him from a shy, skinny boy who cried his first night in Marine boot camp into a confident, self-reliant adult. So far, he's earned a check for $62,000 and is waiting for more when his recruits go to basic training.
Many young people sign up to earn a paycheck, to qualify for educational benefits and to travel, said Kline, who has more than two years of college and continues to take online courses.
Recruits receive a monthly paycheck for drilling with their unit, plus a host of incentives that could include a $20,000 enlistment bonus, 100 percent college tuition assistance and up to $650 a month under the GI Bill to cover educational expenses.
Kline said he informs potential recruits about the bonuses he earns and tells them and their parents there's absolutely no guarantee a Guard member won't have to fight in Iraq, where more than 3,200 members of the U.S. military have been killed and more than 24,000 have been wounded.
So far none of his recruits have been lost in combat, but they know the risks, he said.
"They hear in the news all the time about the roadside bombings," Kline said.
The Army also has a referral bonus program known as "Every Soldier is a Recruiter," but full-time soldiers living on insulated Army posts don't normally have the close community contacts of the National Guard members.
"From a strategic perspective, nobody can copy our level of community penetration," Carden said. "We don't visit our target market, we live in it. We've got people trained to canvass their own communities for people they want to serve with."
Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor who specializes in military recruiting, said the program proves "personal contact is far more important than multimillion dollar advertising."
Although figures may not be released for several more weeks, Jones said he expects the Army Guard to meet its goal of signing up 70,000 new members this year — 20,000 of them through the recruiting assistance program — and reaching its target of at least 350,000 soldiers.
"It's the actual soldiers themselves who are the greatest advertisements we have," Jones said. "They fill units with people like them."