National Guard recruiting and retention wounded by war
By Rob Haneisen / News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2003
National Guard recruiters are fighting a losing battle while commanders wonder how they can convince soldiers called to active duty by the global war on Terrorism
to remain in their units.
This week's announcement by the Pentagon that some National Guard and Army reserve units will have their deployment extended to 12 months only makes the predicament worse. There are about 700 Massachusetts guardsmen on duty in Iraq and Kuwait.
It's an ugly scenario seen once before when part-time soldiers returned from active duty in the first Gulf War and fled the military.
"When my unit returned from the Gulf, you couldn't hold the door open wide enough. People were getting out in droves," said Al Blais, a Framingham police officer and sergeant major in the National Guard. His military police unit was one of four deployed this summer for a month in Germany to replace troops headed to Iraq.
Though that deployment was much shorter than the stints of troops stationed in Iraq and Kuwait since the beginning of the year, it was long enough to convince some in those units that renewing contracts with the military would not be for them.
"Their families did not want them to leave again," said Blais.
On both a local and national level, recruitment for the Army National Guard is down.
According to Maj. Ellen Krenke, public affairs officer with the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., recruiters do not expect to meet their annual goals.
The National Guard had hoped to enlist 62,000 soldiers by the end of September but appears to be falling far short. Only 47,907 soldiers had been enlisted as of the end of August, leaving the Guard 22.7 percent short of its goal. The military's fiscal year ends in September.
In Massachusetts, recruiting is down as well, according to Capt. Winfield Danielson, public affairs officer with the Massachusetts National Guard headquarters in Milford.
When asked if the war and extended deployments were dissuading potential recruits from sign up, Danielson agreed.
"Certainly. There's a potential that those are reasons why and determining factors. Locally, it's an area of serious concern. We're making it our top priority."
So serious, in fact, that the Guard is moving its recruiting and retention command headquarters in Lexington to the state headquarters in Milford.
"This will better allow us to keep a pulse on the recruiting efforts," Danielson said. "If things aren't working well, we will find out about it sooner."
New national advertising campaigns, awards for soldiers who sign up their buddies and free trips to NASCAR races are also included in the mix to fill openings in the Guard's 350,000 soldier force.
Other branches of the military don't appear to have the same problem with recruiting as the National Guard but are still waiting for final recruiting efforts to meet annual goals.
According to Douglas Smith, public affairs spokesman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Ft. Knox, Ky., the Army should meet its annual goals of enlisting 73,800 active duty soldiers and 26,400 reservists. As of the end of August, recruiters have enlisted 67,353 active duty soldiers and 25,202 reservists.
"We have enough people in line to ship off to basic to meet our annual mission," Smith said. "But we haven't crossed the finish line yet."
New England recruiting efforts -- with one last push -- are also in line to meet annual goals of enlisting 1,758 active duty soldiers and 753 reservists.
While recruiters point to patriotism and training as reasons for continued recruiting success, they also acknowledge the poor economy as an effective funnel for potential soldiers.
"There's always a propensity for people who want to serve," said Maj. David O'Brien, executive officer for the U.S. Army New England Recruiting Battalion. "And the economy also has an impact on that with the job market being the way it is. It helps the service be an alternative."
Though getting new soldiers into the military is a concern, of at least equal concern is keeping soldiers in the Guard.
According to Danielson, the Massachusetts National Guard next month will begin two-day retention training programs for unit leaders. The goal is to teach leaders how to effectively reinforce reasons to stay in the Guard, no doubt a difficult task following extended deployments.
"A majority of people joining the National Guard do so because they want to give something back to their country. They are civic-minded," Danielson said. "But here you have people who served six months to a year and sometimes more overseas and I think a lot of people feel like they did their part. Those that want to pursue other avenues we wish them the best but we want to retain them because they have great experience."
Of the 11,000 soldiers in the Massachusetts National Guard, 6,000 have been activated since Sept. 11, 2001. Of those, 3,000 have been deployed overseas to Cuba, Bosnia, Afghanistan and mostly Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq. And the Pentagon's recent extension of some troops could keep Massachusetts troops overseas longer. The 12-month extension is actually longer than it seems. The clock does not start until the soldier is in a foreign country. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq spent as long as two months at U.S. bases waiting for transportation, equipment and training before deploying.
All this adds up to trouble.
"If you're a spouse and even a soldier and you are extended longer than you thought you would be there, you are not going to be happy about that," Danielson said. "Families are upset and have every right to be but our soldiers made a commitment and will follow it through."
One of the reasons the Guard wants to keep soldiers who have been deployed overseas, especially to combat zones, is their experience.
"The real world experience they have will save lives," Danielson said. "These are the ones that 20 years down the road will be the senior leaders of the organization."
The other reason is money.
"Training new soldiers is more expense than retaining those you have," Danielson said.
Noah Amatucci, 20, of Franklin, has no immediate plans to leave the military. Last month he returned from six months in Afghanistan.
"Give me a few more months and I'll be ready to go again," Amatucci said. "I'm all gung-ho and I love this stuff."
Not that he could easily end his commitment. He still owes five years to the military.
But even Amatucci understands and heard complaints from some in his unit -- particularly those with families -- who were ready to call an end to their military careers.
Framingham' Blais has 20 years in the military and is ready to sign up for another three. He has attained one of the highest ranks available for an enlisted soldier but even he doesn't want to be deployed.
"But I will go if called, absolutely," he said.
He understands the moaning by some soldiers about deployment and even though there is a sense of adventure and enthusiasm from the younger set, he believes no one really wants to be deployed.
But the one thing he doesn't understand is any sense of surprise or shock.
"For some of them it is a big shock but at the same time with the climate in the world the way it is, if you are surprised to be deployed you must be living under a rock for the past two years.