by Tom Philpott
To reverse a sharp drop in recruiting since citizen soldiers became 40 percent of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve this month announced increases in enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses.
But Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the Army “probably is two years away’’ from moving to shorter tours for members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Year-long combat tours, he conceded, aggravate the recruiting problem.
“I would like to get to a rotation where we do nine months active duty tour time with six months boots-on-the-ground,’’ said Blum. That would cut current rotations by half.
“But we are not ready to go there yet,’’ Blum said.
The chief of Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, told The Dallas Morning News in mid-December that Reserve recruiting is in a “precipitous decline’’ that, if not stemmed, could reopen debate over a military draft.
Blum said Guard recruiting too has dropped sharply, particularly from among the pool of members leaving active duty. Before fiscal 2004, the Army Guard got 50 percent of recruits from the prior-service pool.
“It was an automatic. It was a given,’’ Blum said.
That has plummeted to 35 percent, he said, leaving the Guard short more than 8,000 members through September.
The gap has widened since then to 12,600. Army Guard recruiters in October and November, the first two months of fiscal 2005, signed only 70 percent of their monthly goals.
Blum said it reflects a dramatic change in the nature of Guard service since 9/11, from a strategic reserve force that drilled on weekends to an operational force critical to a nation at war. One quarter of Guard personnel have been deployed, continually, for the past three years, he said.
So to service members leaving active duty, enlistment in the Guard isn’t the comfortable option it once was, not at least if their goal is to avoid another dangerous tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Thirty-six percent of U.S. soldiers in Iraq in the current rotation are Guard members. Counting Army reservists too, citizen soldiers are 40 percent of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are suffering wounds in proportion to their numbers in theater, Blum said. Fatalities are proportionally lower. Army statistics show one of every 402 active duty soldiers sent to Iraq has died versus one of every 606 Army Guard members.
The dearth of prior-service enlistments has forced the Guard to try to sign more inexperienced recruits. The non-prior service target for 2005 is 65,000, up 9,000 from last year. That effort got off to a slow start.
In answer, the Guard will expand its recruiting force by 50 percent, training 1,400 more in a few months to reach 4,100 total recruiters.
“They’ll hit the street around the first of February,’’ Blum said.
The Army Guard and Reserve this month also raised bonuses. Non-prior service recruits entering critical skills will get $10,000 for a six-year hitch, half paid on completing individual training and half after four years’ service. Guard recruits electing specialties critical to states will get $6,000.
Also, a $2,000 bonus is available to Guard new enlistees who enter service in “off-peak’’ months of October through May.
To attract prior-service members, the Army Guard and Reserve offer up to $15,000 now for a six-year hitch, half paid upon enlistment and half after four years. The previous maximum was $8,000.
The Guard also offers three-year options: $7,500 for an initial three years, and $6,000 for a second three. Other new Guard initiatives involve enlistment extension bonuses, specialty conversion bonuses, student loan repayment incentives and a GI-Bill education “kicker.’’ Officers are being offered higher accession bonuses.
Blum said he’s optimistic that more recruiters and bigger bonuses will attract enough volunteers to return the Guard to full strength.
“We’re sustaining wartime casualties and sending people in harm’s way. So it requires us to recruit with a different message. We’re not bringing people in for college (benefits) or vocational training. We’re bringing them in for service to their nation,’’ Blum said. “And their state.’’
“The crucible of war,’’ he added, “will purify the force and separate the true citizen soldiers from those … not willing to make the sacrifice.”
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: