Army Guard Refilling Its Ranks

Pfc. Donald McClelland, foreground, works on his marching supervised by Sgt. 1st Class Derek Ford, right, at the National Guard armory in Williamstown, W.Va.
Pfc. Donald McClelland, foreground, works on his marching supervised by Sgt. 1st Class Derek Ford, right, at the National Guard armory in Williamstown, W.Va. (By Kate Robertson For The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Army National Guard, which has suffered a severe three-year recruiting slump, has begun to reel in soldiers in record numbers, aided in part by a new initiative that pays Guard members $2,000 for each person they enlist.

The Army Guard said Friday that it signed up more than 26,000 soldiers in the first five months of fiscal 2006, exceeding its target by 7 percent in its best performance in 13 years. At this pace, Guard leaders say they are confident they will reach their goal of boosting manpower from the current 336,000 to the congressionally authorized level of 350,000 by the end of the year.

"Will we make 350,000? The answer is: Absolutely," said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The rebound is striking because since 2003, the Army Guard has performed worse in annual recruiting than any other branch of the U.S. military. The Guard was shrinking while it was being asked to shoulder a big part of the burden in Iraq. Together with the Army Reserve, it supplied as many as 40 percent of the troops in Iraq while also dispatching tens of thousands of members to domestic disasters.

Today, the Guard is surpassing its goals and growing in strength -- a welcome boost for an all-volunteer Army stretched thin by unprecedented deployments. In recent months, the Guard enlisted nearly as many troops as the active-duty Army, even though it is a much smaller force. Indeed, the Army Guard, present in about 3,500 U.S. communities, will launch pilot programs this year to recruit for the entire Army.

"We're seeing quantum leaps," said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard. "We should probably be America's recruiter for the Army."

A driving force in this year's early success, Guard leaders say, is that thousands of Guard members have now returned from Iraq and are reaching out to friends, old classmates and co-workers -- widening the face-to-face contacts that officials say are critical to recruiting. Guard members "are staying with us and want to fill up units with their neighbors and friends," Blum said in an interview. "Now that they're back -- watch out."

The prospect of serving in a violent Iraq is still part of the equation for potential recruits, and Army officials say more frequent deployments have hurt recruitment for the active-duty Army, which began suffering shortfalls last year. The Guard has tried to address that concern by establishing a rotation cycle of one year abroad for every five years at home, which lends more predictability to the commitment, recruiters and military analysts say.

"Fear of the unknown hurts people. We want to take away the fear," said Maj. Kristine Wood, recruiting commander for West Virginia. Since 2004, the Guard has had nine brigades deployed in Iraq and elsewhere, but that will drop to two by year's end, officials say.

One factor in the recruiting success is the initiative, expanded to 22 states in December, that christened 31,000 Guard members nationwide as "recruiting assistants" who can earn $2,000 for every enlistee -- $1,000 when the recruit signs a contract and another $1,000 when he or she enters boot camp or completes four months of service. The program, whose success has begun to get publicity in recent weeks, has "taken off like wildfire," said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, head of the Nebraska Guard and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States.

The first enlistment under the program was by a West Virginia guardsman who signed up his wife. West Virginia was one of five pilot states to launch the program in November.

"I told her, the money is coming; this is a good idea," said Chief Warrant Officer Felix Osuna Cotto, whose wife, Loretta, had been considering the service but had not decided to join. Osuna Cotto learned about the program on Friday, Dec. 2, took Loretta to a Guard holiday dinner on Saturday, and on Sunday enrolled in the program while she talked to recruiters. "By 1 that afternoon, we became the first in the nation," said Osuna Cotto, who plans to use the $2,000 to buy his son a used car for college.

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