Armed forces reserve units at Andrews Air Force Base, Ft. Meade and other suburban Maryland installations are operating at below authorized strength, reflecting the national trend downward in the number of reserves.
Because of that trend, said deputy assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs Will Hill Tankersley, the Pentagon has launched a study of incentives that could be used to attract people back into the reserves. Pentagon recommendations will require Congressional approval before they can be implemented.
The trend reflects the end of the war in Vietnam and the end of the draft, incentives that once drove large numbers of draftaged men into the reserves and produced "a waiting list an arm long," as one Maryland reservist said.
Now, with the picture radically changed, local reserve units are stepping up recruiting efforts in a bad to correct a situation that Tankersley and others say might otherwise threaten the reserve forces' ability to provide first-rate training.
"What concerns us in not the present," noted Tankersley, who said the shortfalls are not a serious threat to the country's ability to mobilize. "It's the trend.
Nationally, the armed forces reserves and the National Guard are at about 94 per cent of authorized strength - a figure that reflects, in part, recently reduced goals, rather needs, for some branches of the services.
Locally, the 97th U.S. Army Reserve Command, headquartered in Ft. Meade, which includes most of the suburban Maryland reserve units, is about 10 per cent below strength. Local Marine reserve units are at about 95 per cent of authorized strength.
The 459th Tactical Airlift Wing of the Air Force reserves, located at the Andrews Air Force Base, is at about 95 per cent of strength. The Navy's Reserve Readiness Command, region six, with units in Adelphi, Alexandria and the Washington Navy Yard, is currently manned at about 85 per cent of authorized strength.
"For a long time, we were in a buyer's market," said Tankersley. "It was like the King Tut exhibit. We had a line and could just shut if off when we wanted to," he said.
In 1974, when the draft ended, the numbers of reservists began to slide downward as reservists who had ather than be drafted left the service without re-enlisting. At the same time the number of new reservists began to fall.
"So many of the people who went in the Vietnam era, their six years are up now, and the retention rate is very slim," said Sgt. Paul Logan, the non-commissioned officer in charge of recruiting for the Maryland National Guard. Logan said retention was even lower in the Washington metropolitan area than in the rest of the state.
(In the Washington area) there were a lot of professional people who came into those units, who were more or less disinterested," he said.
The guard and reserve units are attacking the problem by increasing recruiting staff and other programs. One of those is what the Maryland National Guard calls the "stripes for buddies" program - sort of a bounty program through which a new recruit can rise in rank and pay grade by bringing in other new recruits.
Even more important, according to Tankersley, is to let people know that the Guard and reserves have changed.
"In recent years the Guard and the reserves have been in transition from the militia concept," said Tankersley.Instead of having a pool of not very highly trained people who might take as much as a year to make combat-ready, the reserves now provide a highly trained cadre that can be mobilized as quickly as within 48 hours, he said.
The reserves image has suffered, he said. "People thought of it as a bunch of old fat men telling war stories" or as draft dodgers. An unfair label, he said.
Now, he said, the training and equipment is better and, as opposed to in the past, the Guard and reserves are evaluated by the same scale used for evaluating active forces. The 459th Tactical Airlift Wing unit at Andrews trains on its own C-130E aircraft, the same type of aricraft used by the Israelis in their rescue at Entebbe airport, according to public information officer Mike Singer.
"A strong, effective Guard is the only alternative" to larger, more costly active forces, Tankersley said.
Currently 30 per cent of the armed forces units and 40 per cent of the trained manpower is in the Guard and reserves, he said.
To attract new recruits, the reserves offer life insurance, limited retirements benefits, a sense of camaraderie and service an d marketable training, proponents said. "To a new recruit, retirement doesn't mean that much," said Capt. John Pawulak, chief of the office of recruiting and retention for the 97th U.S. Army Reserve Comman dat Ft. Meade, but training that can be used to find a job does.
A reservist can train in fields including mechanics, computers, engineering, topography and medicine.
Tankersley said the Pentagon is studying incentives that might be used effectively in recruiting, such as partial tuition payments for reserve members. The Pentagon is also reveiwing pay rates for reservists, he said.Recommendations to send to Congress are expected to be ready by summer.
One major problem produced by the current need to recruit is that time and energy now being spent on recruiting means some reduction in the time and energy available for training, said Tankersley.
The 97th has recently tripled the number of recruiters setting up booths in schools and shopping centers and displays in bowling center and post offices, as well as operating out of recruiting centers around the state, Pawulak said. Even so, they are spread thin, he said.
Not all units are below strength. Units that offer training in relatively glamorous areas such as intelligence appear to have less trouble recruiting. For instances, military police and intelligence units operating out of the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Gaithersburg are all above strength, according to center coordinator Charles Sye.
For the Navy units locally "the problem is not so much finding the bodies as finding the person with the specific skill needed," said Capt. Frank Briggs, deputy commander for the Naval Reserve Readiness Command, region six.
Others have more difficulty.One field artillery unit that Pawulak said was hard to recruit for is located in a relatively rural area of Maryland, Westminster, and specializes in using spotlights. "It's kind of hard to get people excited about going out once a month to use searchlights," he said.
John L. Stargel of Gaithersburg, beginning his 10th year in the Army reserves, joined when he was 17 years old. His father was a reservist and it was traditional with the family, he said. He has stayed, worked hard, taken correspondence courses and been promoted.
Because he works nights, in charge of a crew of stockers for Safeway, he has extra time for the reserves, he said. "I thoroughly enjoy it. I wouldn't stay unless I did."
"The reserves have a lot to offer to people. . . I want to go to the top," he said. Stargel, who worked previously with an administrative unit and a mess section, works now with a military police unit. The reserves and the Guard require one weekend a month and two weeks training in the summer after six months basic training for new recruits. A new recruit at the lowest rank will earn about $2,600 in his first year.
On weekend training exercises, his unit works primarily on administrative matters but also does some combat training, said Stargel. They put up tents, climb trees and operate convoys, he said. "Sometimes it gets a little muddy and sweaty but I like it," he said.