National Guard Holds On to Recruits

Army National Guard recruiters across the country say that so far, the unprecedented levels of guard deployment into theaters of violent conflict for tours of 12 months or longer have not had a negative impact on recruitment and retention levels.

"There hasn’t been any impact to date," said Lt. Col. Dennis Devery, spokesman for the New Jersey Army National Guard, which has about 1,500 troops mobilized for service out of a force of 6,200.

"If we get 100 personnel per month, then we’re doing OK, and we’ve had that for the last six months, so that is a plus for our side," Devery said. "We’re on track."

"We are approximately 80 enlistments over what we were at this time last year, which is fantastic," said Lt. Col. Alicia Tate-Nadeau, spokeswoman for the Illinois Army National Guard.

These Guard officials offer a number of reasons why recruitment or re-enlistments have stayed strong, but concede the possibility a visible drop-off may grow as the war wears on and more guard troops return from long deployments.

"Recruiting trends are still fine but it is a concern; we’re making sure we keep our finger on the pulse, so to speak, of people coming home from the field to see how they feel," said Lt. Col. Doug Hart, spokesman for the California Army National Guard, which has about 3,000 mobilized out of a total guard force of 20,000 men and women.

Nationwide, numbers in recruiting are "slightly down," while retention levels are higher than last year, said Mark Allen, spokesman for the Army National Guard Bureau (search) in Washington, D.C. The national recruitment goal is 56,000 for 2004, of which the Guard would need to recruit about another 26,000 to reach that goal.

"We’re doing the best we can to meet our needs — we’re cautiously optimistic," said Allen. "We understand the challenges in front of us, there is no question about that."

Allen said the Army National Guard is authorized for 350,000 troops and they have about 98 percent of that number today. As of the end of April, about 155,000 of these men and women had been called up or were on alert for active duty, with more than 43,000 in Iraq and about 4,000 in Afghanistan.

As the Guard works to reach its recruiting goals, lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee (search) are discussing the potential problems of stretching active duty forces too thin, and creating an over-reliance on part-time soldiers, who do not get the same benefits and do not have the same job security as their full-time counterparts.

"We have seen too much shrinking of numbers in the active duty military and it has forced us to rely on the National Guard components," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who added that he disagrees with a Pentagon plan that would train existing active duty troops for high-demand skills rather than increase the number of recruits.

Rogers said the increased reliance on the National Guard "has not caused an erosion of retention and recruitment" yet. "But when I talk to people in leadership positions, they say it's too early to tell, that it will be six to 10 months from now before we see a trend."

Jeff Kojac, a national security fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search), warned that while soldiers doing one or two tours may have great retention rates, stretching them into a third tour will practically guarantee dropouts.

Kojac added that he thinks the real cracks in the system will appear as more recruits realize that the National Guard is no longer about protecting the homeland "in a limited fashion."

"If things continue they way they are, the National Guard and United States Army Reserves (search) are in danger of being broken," he said. "If anyone is going to suffer recruitment and retention, it is these guys."

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said she doesn’t think the so-far positive trend will continue. She said the military would continue to tap the Guard for service, disproportionately taking doctors, police officers and emergency medical technicians from communities.

"Some of these folks are on a third tour because they were in Afghanistan after 9/11," she said. "It’s not like we have any sense of success in Iraq that gives us a date-certain time when we are going to relieve these folks."

Guard representatives in several states say new recruits are taking risks. While it is widely understood that unlike years’ past, enlistment may mean overseas duty rather than the one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year obligation. They speculated that some recruits see the promise of free college tuition and sign-up bonuses as a worthwhile return for their enlistment.

Others have signed on because of the war, emboldened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the ongoing operations against terrorists.

"A lot of people join because they are strong, patriotic people in the first place and while we are at war what that does is sharpen that patriotism," said Allen.

"People understand that someone had to secure this state and our nation and New Jersey has had special issues that we have been involved with," said Devery, noting that many survivors of the World Trade Center attacks live in the state, which was also the target of anthrax attacks not long afterward.

Guard officials say that re-enlistment rates are slightly higher, with a fewer number of dropouts than last year — particularly among those who have already served overseas.

"There is great unit cohesion among people who serve in stressful situations — once you have done that, you don’t want to be a quitter," Devery said. "There are lot of reasons (for the low dropout rates), but I think that is a big one."