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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)

Today, the new program's recruits are snowballing, growing from 10 a day to more than 120 one day last week, Vaughn said.

Guard Sgt. Clay Edwards, 30, has brought in more than a dozen recruits since he returned in 2004 from driving a wrecker in Iraq with the 1092nd Engineer Battalion.

"In the past, I might think, 'I don't really want to talk to that guy,' " said Edwards, a tire salesman in Parkersburg, W.Va. "Now I say, 'What the heck, I might be able to make a little money,' " said Edwards, steering his white pickup truck through the West Virginia back country with a box full of National Guard brochures in the back seat.

To be sure, Guard officials say recruiting is historically stronger in the early months of the calendar year, suggesting that the current growth could taper off. But the Guard is surpassing higher monthly targets now than at this time last year, having raised its annual goal to 70,000 from 63,000 in fiscal 2005.

The active-duty Army has also met its recent monthly goals. But that is in part because the Army had set the goals significantly lower for the first part of the fiscal year, banking on dramatic increases in recruiting this summer to meet its annual target of 80,000.

The fresh wave of sign-ups came at a critical time as the Army National Guard faced funding cuts based on manpower shortfalls. Guard strength hit a low of 331,000 after it met only 80 percent of its enlistment goal last year. Army leaders said in January that they would cut funding for the Guard in the fiscal 2007 budget by 17,000 slots.

The decision drew protests from a majority of U.S. senators, state Guard leaders and all 50 governors. The Army has since agreed to restore the funding, but pressure remains on the Guard to produce the 350,000 troops.

The new "recruiting assistant" program accompanies a range of initiatives, such as a major increase in the official recruiting force from 2,700 to 5,100 since 2004. The Guard has also shifted from costly television ads to appeals that are more narrowly targeted at the young, such as pitches on pizza boxes and iTunes giveaways. In late January, it doubled to $20,000 its bonus for recruits who had never served in the military.

On Jan. 31, the Guard hit a record of 741 recruits in a single day, said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy division chief for recruiting.

The recruiting assistants are trained online by a private firm and have ushered in about 2,000 enlistees. "It made the difference between success and failure" in making the monthly recruiting goals, Jones said. Expanded nationwide this month, the program is expected to grow to 65,000 assistants and to bring in 150 recruits a day later this year, officials said.

Ultimately, Vaughn's plan is for the assistants to replace most full-time Guard recruiters, who will act more as office managers handling the testing and paperwork of enlistees delivered to them.

In Parkersburg, as in many U.S. communities, recruiting began to pick up after the local Guard unit, the 630-strong 1092nd Engineer Battalion, returned from Iraq to a cheering crowd and started attracting new soldiers. "While they were gone, the whole community felt their absence," Wood said. "They were the teachers, the truck drivers, and, of course, that had an impact on recruiting."

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