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.
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."
"You won't see Guard recruiters going down to these places," said Edwards, driving along a gravel road to call on a concrete factory beside a canal of the Ohio River.
Edwards, who said he got his job selling tires with the help of his Guard "network," is now leveraging his business contacts to sell the Guard. He was "tracking" six more potential recruits.
Down the road at Contract Mail Trucking in Mineral Wells, W.Va., Edwards helped Nathaniel Morgan, 19, make a repair. Attracted by college benefits and pride in service, Morgan signed up with the Guard last month after Edwards encouraged him to join despite his mother's reservations. "I had to kind of play the role of big brother," Edwards said.
Morgan will go to boot camp in September and fully expects to be deployed overseas -- reflecting what Guard officials say is a growing acceptance of the Guard's relatively new role -- but he feels assured in knowing people in his unit. "You're in good company with people like Clay, people you know," he said.
Visiting another customer, a trucking company in Sandyville, W.Va., Edwards checked in on mechanic Doug Cooper. Cooper, 32, has worked at the firm since he was 13, fixing and loading 18-wheelers.
"I was out poking around about another job, and Clay come in," said Cooper, who recalled Edwards immediately handing him a bunch of Guard brochures. Cooper agreed to take the qualification test and passed with a high score.
"I'm about 99 percent sure I'm going," he said. "Clay hasn't been overzealous. He hasn't been trying to sweet-talk me." Instead, Edwards spoke of the Guard as a way for Cooper to expand his horizons.
Cooper pointed to a streak on the wall left by creek water that flooded his shop in 1998, recalling how Guard members helped clear away debris. "That just tickled me that someone was here to help," he said. "That's what I'm after . . . to feel I'm contributing."