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Guard's New Pitch: Fighting Words
As Enlistment Numbers Slide, Recruiters Tailoring Message to War Needs

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.

In fiscal 2003, the Guard missed its quota by 7,798 recruits. Last year, it was off by 6,792.

The Guard is taking aggressive action to reverse the trend. It plans to open a storefront recruiting office across from the teenage-favorite Abercrombie & Fitch store at the Mall in Columbia. In addition to the new marketing campaign, it has added 1,400 recruiters, bringing the total to 4,100, said Lt. Col. Michael Jones, the National Guard Bureau's deputy chief of recruiting and retention.

Other parts of the military are taking a similar approach. Last month, the secretary of the Army said that in addition to adding recruiters and fattening enlistment bonuses, the branch plans a national grass-roots effort featuring military and political leaders talking about "the value of serving the nation, the noble calling." And to help reverse the sliding numbers, the Guard and Army Reserve are raising the maximum enlistment age from 34 to 39.

The Guard is also asking former combat veterans to become recruiters, so "they can tell their stories," Jones said.

"There's something very refreshing about a live soldier telling people what he did on an everyday basis," he said. "We can't replace that with a fancy video or TV ad."

Ziegler, 27, one of more than 40 new recruiters to recently join the Maryland National Guard, is the kind of person it wants to do the selling. Rushed through recruiting school in three weeks instead of the normal five so he could hit the streets as soon as possible, he is so persistent that "if a bum approaches me, asks me for a dollar, I say, 'Have you ever thought of joining the Guard?' "

One of Ziegler's best attributes, said Lt. Col. Kevin Preston, who oversees recruiting for the Maryland National Guard, is that having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, he can offer a first-person view of the war.

"The war in Iraq has a lot of good that's happening, and so does the global war on terror," Preston said. "Unfortunately, it's human nature to dwell on the bad, but he can talk about building schools and infrastructure -- all the stuff that's not in the press every day. It's critical to tell that story, and I think that diffuses the parents hearing in the news [about] 'X number of soldiers killed in Iraq.' "

Ziegler's account of the war is almost always upbeat and optimistic, one where soldiers were treated as heroes. If asked, he'll talk about how his convoy ran into a roadside bomb or how their base was hit by mortar fire. But it's an unwritten rule that if the prospect doesn't bring up the war, recruiters don't either, said Staff Sgt. Ralph Quick, who works with Ziegler. They are more than happy to talk about $10,000 enlistment bonuses and free tuition instead.

The Hard Sell

Ziegler, who joined the Guard last year after serving in the active Army, is having a slow start as a recruiter, signing up just three people so far this year. It's not for lack of trying: He routinely works weekends and 12-hour days, combing schools and malls and making countless cold calls.

"Have you ever thought of joining the Guard?" Ziegler called out to a young man walking by a recent job fair at Bowie State University, where Ziegler and Quick had a booth.

As he launched into an explanation of how the Guard is made up of part-time citizen soldiers, the prospect interrupted.

"Honestly, in this day and age, there's a lot more of the military part," he said.

"So you're concerned about deployment?" Ziegler asked.

"I've got to be honest with you. War scares the hell out of me," the young man said.

Ziegler responded that war scared him, too. "But you've got to look at the greater good," he said. When he was in Iraq, he said, he built schools, installed sewer lines and helped Iraqis take back their country.

"Once I got the chance to see the expressions on their faces and had the opportunity to help them, it was worth it," he said.

And when the prospect wrote his name and phone number on a form, it seemed as if Ziegler had a good lead to pursue.

"I'll call you," he said.

Later that week, he did. Twice. But several days passed, and he still hadn't heard back.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company