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Guard's New Pitch: Fighting Words

Sgt. Bruce Ziegler, right, a Maryland National Guard recruiter, speaks with a student at a recent job fair at Bowie State University.
Sgt. Bruce Ziegler, right, a Maryland National Guard recruiter, speaks with a student at a recent job fair at Bowie State University. (Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

The pitch was much easier before the roadside bombs and the snipers picking off American soldiers in Iraq. Join the Army National Guard and "get your degree tuition-free" was the recruiter's refrain.

But two years after the invasion of Iraq, the Guard's message is catching up to reality. With so many of its "citizen soldiers" now more soldier than citizen, the Guard is beginning a $38 million marketing campaign heavy on patriotism and battle scenes. The new "American Soldier" ads, showing troops with weapons drawn, helicopters streaking and tanks rolling, are an attempt to remind people what the Guard has been about since the country's Colonial days: fighting wars and protecting the homeland.

"The most important weapon in the war on terrorism. You," is one of the Guard's new hard-edged slogans. "Serious Commitment. Serious Rewards," says another.

After years of serving one weekend a month, two weeks a year without fear of deployment, even those who joined the Guard before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may have needed a reminder that they were soldiers who could be called up for combat deployments at a moment's notice.

Without the draft, abolished in 1973, military leaders have had to lean heavily on the Guard, which is 36 percent of the total Army force in Iraq, according to the National Guard Bureau. Since Sept. 11, more than 210,000 of the Guard's 330,000 soldiers have been called up, with an average mobilization of 460 days.

That is a significant change for the Guard, which despite widespread mobilizations during the two world wars and Korea was not activated in large numbers to fight in Vietnam. The draft supplied a steady stream of soldiers, and political leaders didn't want the flak that would have come with taking part-time soldiers away from families and civilian jobs, said Renee Hylton, a Guard historian.

The Guard, which has units in every state and the District, can be called up by the president for military missions and by governors for such domestic emergencies as floods and hurricanes.

These days, in malls and schools in the Washington area, Sgt. Bruce Ziegler, a Laurel-based Maryland National Guard recruiter, sells not only the Guard, but also the war its soldiers are heavily involved in. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he recently told a prospect that helping citizens in both countries fight for their freedom "was a wonderful experience that gave me a feeling like no other."

With the new campaign, which includes such recruiters as Ziegler, fresh from the war zone, the Guard is simply adapting to the times, said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

"Serving in the National Guard is a lot different than it used to be," he said. "We're an essential part of the defense of our nation, and we have to change our advertising to reflect the truth of our mission."

The old ads that showcased people using the Guard to pay for school are just not credible during a time of war, said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland. "The Guard is not in a position to say if you join, you're going to be around to go to college," he said. "They are no longer a force in reserve. They are a force involved in the war."

Concern From All Fronts

The constant deployments have prompted an outcry from some part-time soldiers who never thought they'd be called away for so long. Members of Congress have said they're worried that the Guard has been strained to the breaking point. And military officials are worried that the number of recruits will continue to slide.

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