WASHINGTON - Once seen as a haven from the jungles of Vietnam or as a source of cash for college, the National Guard is struggling to reinvent itself in the age of terror with a bare-knuckled new ad campaign, hundreds of additional recruiters and a beefed-up financial package for its part-time soldiers.
But some active-duty officers and defense analysts doubt that the Guard can quickly turn around its weak recruiting. They say the shortfall could be the first ominous sign of a fraying of the 30-year-old all-volunteer force, both active-duty and reserve, because of the strain of repeat yearlong deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I wouldn't bet on their success," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, who predicted that offering more money for soldiers would help recruiting only "at the margins." The Guard's inability to maintain its force, he said, could mean trouble not only for its support of the active-duty military but also for its ability to respond to natural disasters at home.
With reservists accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq - a percentage expected to increase slightly next year and include 130 soldiers from a Maryland Guard infantry company - the National Guard is also struggling for recruits. It fell about 7,000 soldiers short last year of the 56,000 soldiers needed to maintain a 350,000-soldier force. Now the Guard is 10,000 soldiers short and facing an even bigger recruiting goal, 63,000 in the coming year.
"It's tough. We're using the Guard and Reserve heavily," said Rick Stark, a retired Army colonel and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank that's studying the role of part-time soldiers. "The jury's out. They're not going to recruit their way out of it."
Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy recruiting and retention chief for the National Guard Bureau, admitted that officials failed to react quickly enough to the Guard's changing role, particularly the greater risk facing its soldiers without an increase in benefits. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 143 Guard soldiers have died there, and another 15 have been killed in Afghanistan in the three years since the fall of the Taliban, officials said.
"It comes down to what's the risk, what's the reward," said Jones, a voluble officer with an ad man's rapid-fire delivery. "We were slow in recognizing we were asking a lot of our young soldiers."
Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, a former Baltimore schoolteacher who heads the National Guard Bureau, calls his soldiers "21st-century Minutemen," likening them to the 18th-century residents of Lexington and Concord who left their plows to pick up muskets.
While acknowledging that "we're in a more difficult recruiting environment," he sees recruiting recovering by late next summer, spurred by better benefits packages and a recruiting force that will swell from the current 2,700 to 4,100.
Stark said that while additional benefits and recruiters should help, the Guard must also work hard to retain soldiers. So far, he said, there is good news: The Guard attrition rate declined to 17 percent this year, from 19.6 percent in 2000.
"Folks who joined after 9/11 are very committed," said Jones, adding that Guard units deploying overseas have a higher retention rate than those within the United States. "We're finding out they're sticking with us."
Seated in an office outside Washington whose walls are covered with Guard posters and memorabilia, Jones quickly lists the Guard's expanding benefits for those who sign up for a six-year hitch or re-enlist.
Enlistment bonuses are increasing from $6,000 to as much as $10,000, he said. Also, retention bonuses for soldiers coming off active duty have been boosted to $15,000 from $5,000, matching the peak bonuses for regular soldiers that were announced in August.
The Guard is also doubling the size of student loans it will help repay, to $20,000, and raising tuition assistance to $250 per credit hour, up to a total $4,500 per year.
At the same time, the Guard is going to spend 60 percent more on advertising next year - about $68 million, up from $42 million.
"The American Soldier" campaign features gritty testimonials from Guard soldiers fighting insurgents in Iraq and helping to rebuild the country. The campaign uses patriotic recruiting posters that show surging tanks, hovering attack helicopters and stern-faced young men.
The new campaign replaces posters that focused on education benefits. In Baltimore, for example, Guard officials removed a sign at the 5th Regiment Armory that read "Get Your Degree Tuition Free," and posted one that proclaims, "I am an American Soldier and Proud to Serve, Maryland National Guard, 1-800-Go-Guard."
'Never accept defeat'
TV spots show Guard soldiers, both men and women, wearing the desert camouflage uniform from Afghanistan and Iraq, declaring, "I will never accept defeat." Radio ads, in English and Spanish, contain words rarely associated with Guard soldiers in the recent past: "I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am the guardian of freedom and the American way of life."
A new Army National Guard pamphlet explains that the campaign "taps into the deep, unselfish and highly patriotic reasons why young men and women make commitments to serve their country and place themselves in harm's way."
Segal, the military sociologist, said one problem for the Guard is that there is greater "intrusion on the citizen part of the citizen soldier," meaning more time away from families and jobs.
"Being in the Guard doesn't make economic sense," he said. "In wartime, it intrudes on your employment and threatens continuity of your civilian career. If you want to go off to war, you're better off being a full-time warrior."
But Jones, the Guard's deputy chief of recruiting, hopes to appeal to a potential recruit's sense of patriotism. He said there is now more predictability on which units will deploy over the next two years for a 12-month rotation into Iraq or Afghanistan.
The Guard also hopes to reduce the length of its overseas deployments. "We know 12 months is too long," Blum told reservists during a meeting at the Baghdad airport in September. Blum would like to limit active duty to six months to nine months every five or six years.
"That's a worthwhile goal," said Stark, the defense analyst. "But we're nowhere near that today."
The Guard has also been hampered by a smaller benefits package than its leaders requested. They had sought a signing bonus of up to $20,000 for recruits rather than $10,000 approved by the Pentagon.
"The Army has $20,000 for their active soldiers and thought the active soldier needed a higher compensation rate," Jones said. The decision, he added, reflects "pre-9/11 thinking."
"The Guard and Reserve are going to be on the front lines of this war on terror at home and abroad," he said.
'Stop loss' impact
Moreover, the Guard's recruiting job was made harder last year because active-duty soldiers were not signing up in sufficient numbers for Guard duty once their enlistments ended. During the past year, the Guard expected to sign up 7,000 former soldiers but picked up just 3,400.
Some of those active-duty soldiers were caught up in "stop loss," a seldom-used Pentagon policy that prevents soldiers from leaving, for several months or longer than a year, once their enlistments come to an end. Others decided to re-enlist in the active forces or leave the military altogether.
The Guard is trying a new plan to entice active-duty soldiers coming off a deployment. Jones said the plan features a "12-month stabilization policy," assuring a post that would not be part of an overseas deployment for a year.
Calling on the Marines
Recruiters are also beefing up efforts to recruit Marines into the Guard, noting that 4 percent of its recruits come from active military services other than the Army, Jones said. Guard recruiters are active at Marine bases.
Attracting recruits who have never served in uniform is, as Blum puts it, "a tough buy-in." More time and effort must be spent to entice them, he said, including approaching teachers, coaches and other so-called "influencers."
In the Guard's search for America's youth, Jones said, its recruiters are turning to market research and lumping their young prospects into three categories - "The Stallones," adventure seekers nicknamed for movie tough guy Sylvester Stallone; "G.I. Bills and G.I. Janes," who want money for college; and "The Why Nots," who would like adventure and tuition help and join with a shrug, saying, "Why not?"
Jones opened a magazine to reveal an ad that shows two soldiers atop a Stryker armored vehicle and proclaims: "It's built to get you through anything. Including college."
The ad worked well in focus groups, Jones said, with its clear and clever message. "It ranked better with females than it did with males," he added. "There are different buying motivations for the same product."
Increasing Guard Numbers
Because the Army Guard is 10,000 soldiers short of its required 350,000-soldier force, it is using the following incentives to increase its numbers:
Enlistment bonus amounts
Increases up to: $10,000
Student loan debt payoff
Increases to $20,000
2004: $42 million
2005: About $68 million
Source: U.S. Army National Guard