Armed forces reserve units at Ft. Belvoir and other installation serving Northern Virginia are operating below authorized strength, reflecting the national downward trend 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 - double incentives that once drove large numbers of draft-aged men into the reserves.
Now, with the picture radically changed, local reserve units are stepping up recruiting efforts in a bid to correct a situation that Tankersley and others say might threaten the reserve forces' ability to provide first-rate training.
"What concerns us is 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 than needs, for some branches of the services.
Locally, Theater Army Area Command reserve units at Ft. Belvoir are at about 87 per cent of authorized strength, and the 97th U. S. Army Reserve Command headquartered at Ft. Meade, which serves the metropolitan area, is at about 10 per cent below authorized strength.
Local Marine reserve units are at about 95 per cent of authorized strength. The 459th Tactical Air Lift Wing is at about 95 per cent of authorized strength, and suburban Virginia National Guard units are also low. The Navy's Reserve Readiness Command, region six, with units in Adephi, 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 it 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 joined as an alternative to being drafted left the service without re-enlisting. At the same time the number of new reservists began to fall off.
"The type of people we're getting now are not draft motivated," said James Hurt, assistant recruiting and retention officer for the Virginia National Guard. "When they join, it's because of what we offer," he said.
"One reason so many of the young men who joined in the draft era are not re-enlisting today is because they are professionals," said Arnold Mathias, a recruiting officer at Ft. Belvoir.
For instance, a lawyer might be able to make more in a few hours than on a weekend as a reservist, he said.
The guard and reserve units generally are attacking the shortfall in their ranks by increasing recruiting staff and through other programs. One of those essentially offers a bounty to new recruits, increasing their rank and pay for bringing in other recruits.
Even more important than most of the stepped up efforts, according to Tankersley, is to let people know that the guard and the 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, unlike the past, guard and reserves are evaluated by the same scale used for evaluating active forces. The 459th Tactical Air Lift Wing unit at Andrews Air Force Base trains on its own C-130E aircraft, the same type of aircraft used by the Israelis in their rescue at Entebbe airport, according to public information officer Mike Singer.
"We have one unit here that is a geodetic survey unit," said Mathias at Ft. Belvoir. "They meet from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and take sightings on stars. Our topographic unit goes out ans surveys land areas and prepares diagrams for maps." The maps are executed by unit draftsmen and printed by the printing section, he said. "Most of the guys in the unit actually work for the Defense Mapping Agency as their civilian job," he said.
Marketable training, along with life insurance, limited retirement and a sense of camaraderie and service are among the benefits that the reserves offer, according to proponents.
They are also a bargain for the tax-payer, said Tankersley. "A strong, effective guard and reserve is the only alternative" to larger, more costly active services, he said.
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 reviewing pay rates for reservist, 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.
"We're still fairly new in the business," said Mathias. "The active army has been recruiting since the army began. We've only seen doing it really since the 1970s, when the draft ended. We're not up to where they are yet," he said.
There are other differences too. "Active army recruiters have access to fancy sedams to drive people around in. We have people going out to pick up pospects in pick-up trucks," said Mathias.
Not all units are below strength. Units that offer training in relatively glamorous areas such as intelligence appear to have less trouble recruiting. Of five Marine reserve units that operate out of the Washington Navy Yard, four are nearly 100 per cent of authorized strength, but a fifth is only at about 85 per cent, said Lt. Col. Wayne Bjork.
Supply units are harder to fill, he said. "People would rather do something more exciting," he said.
However, 13 basic training units in Alexandria are also above strength, according to an Army spokesman there.
Sgt. Darlene Blackwell of Woodbridge, Va. joined the reserves in 1974. She had been on active duty in the 1960s, leaving when she got married.
"The reserves gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with the military but not to be as confined as gaving to go where they say to go when they say go," said Blackwell, currently on an active duty tour at Ft. Belvoir.
"I can keep my roots without having to pick up and travel so much," she said. Before she came back to active duty status, Blackwell worked as a construction laborer. "I make a little better money now than in civilian jobs, and I like working with people," she said.
Currently 30 per cent of the armed forces units and 40 per cent of the trained manpower is in the guards and reserves, Tankersley said.