Recruitment for the National Guard might be down across the country since last October, but you'd never guess it from a visit to the Maryland National Guard Armory in Laurel.
There, on a sun-soaked recent morning, the spirit of the fabled 29th Infantry Division seemed alive, well and ready for action in the barrel-chested form of Sgt. Harold Bruce Ziegler. The recruiting officer's shoulder-jarring handshake and rapid-fire laugh communicate enough faith in the U.S. military to survive a direct hit from a bunker-busting bomb.
"I don't have to sell [recruits] a thing," says Ziegler, 28, a native of Leroy, Kan., population 500. "I'm a small-town guy who grew up to visit nearly every state and travel all over the world. I've learned to scuba dive and skydive. I'll be getting a biology degree. I've got a great wife and kids. Seems pretty successful to me. All I have to do is share my story."
If figures released by the Pentagon on Wednesday bother Ziegler, his two fellow recruiting officers or their area commander, Master Sgt. Larry Gray, 46, it's far from apparent on a day when cell phones chirp, faxes clatter in, and camouflage-clad officers bustle in and out for most of the morning and afternoon.
Meeting the quota
According to acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Carr, the Army National Guard was a reported 11,608 recruits - or about one-third - shy of its goals for the 10 months of the fiscal year ending July 31.
Here, though, just below a framed photo of a grizzled-looking Sergeant Ziegler surrounded by his former Army unit in Iraq, a "Mission Hitters' Club" plaque shows the sergeant has met his quota of two recruits per month five times this calendar year.
Sergeant Gray, 46, isn't too far off the pace - 24 a month - he aims to set for the four local armories he oversees.
"It's a little slow, but nothing too drastic," says Gray. "It's always a tough job."
The Laurel recruiters attribute what drop-off they see, in part, to seasonal cycles. It's typical, they say, for potential applicants, including recent high school graduates, to spend a few months soaking up the sun before facing up to adult responsibilities.
"Once summer's over, they tend to realize it's time to get back to the stuff that matters," says Ziegler, whose wise-guy smile and blond hair call to mind film star Kevin Bacon. "It'll pick up then."
Today, when Ziegler happens to pick up 50 percent of his monthly allotment, the thesis isn't hard to swallow. In midmorning, he makes the drive to Landover to pick up Gerald Wilson, 35, who has decided to re-enlist upon conclusion of a recent one-year stint in the Guard.
"I did what I always do," Ziegler says about persuading Wilson to re-up. "Everyone has a need. Everyone has a desire. I determined his, and I explained to him what the military could do for him."
In the case of Wilson, a 65-words-per-minute typist who once spent 11 years doing administrative work in the Navy, that meant holding out the possibility of AIT - advanced individual training - in military administration or supply, not to mention up to $20,000 in student loan repayments.
"That will help me with my career options later on," says Wilson, a Washington, D.C., native who is slated to finish an online college degree this December. "One thing I've learned in the military: It pays to think ahead."
The Maryland National Guard, like Guard units in each of the 50 states, mainly comprises citizen-soldiers who have full-time jobs and do their military training one weekend each month. Here, the Guard is affiliated with the 29th Infantry Division, whose history as a part-time outfit goes back, as Ziegler notes, "to the era of the Minutemen."
The Maryland Guard employs a skeleton crew of full-time soldiers such as Ziegler, who sometimes works 14-hour days making calls, doing presentations or wrangling birth certificates and Social Security numbers. For him, though, it hardly seems like work.
"I can't say I'd do this for nothing," he says, "but for me, it's not about money or numbers. When you change one life for the better - well, you can't replace the feeling that gives you."
He mentions two recent signees - a soldier who is re-enlisting in spite of losing a leg in Iraq, and a former pilot for Air Tran who signed up one day before his 40th birthday - the current upper age limit for Guard recruits.
"Thirty-nine years, 364 days," says Ziegler. "The perfect catch."
The sergeant's ardor isn't surprising, given that he dreamed of a military life long ago and never looked back. As a teen, he was declared medically unfit after fracturing an arm in a boxing match. But he spent so much time on the doorstep of the local Army recruiter, the man let Ziegler in almost out of sheer exhaustion.
Ziegler trained on a howitzer crew, eventually serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where his duties included supporting infantry raids, patrolling for unexploded ordnance and helping rebuild Baghdad's electrical grid.
He uses his stories from those experiences, some of what he calls a million untold positive tales from the wars there, in his recruiting. He focuses on connections he made with everyday Iraqis, such as an old farmer his unit happened on in the countryside near Baghdad.
"He had his little donkey and his plow, and he was working right around the base of a rocket launcher on his land," Ziegler says. "We said, 'Do you know what this is?' He said, 'This has always been here,' " he recalls, laughing. "We called back to HQ and had it cleared out."
In a PR campaign that seems never to stop, Ziegler doles out National Guard mouse pads ("Hooah!"), National Guard lanyards ("Army of One") and National Guard T-shirts ("You Can") as readily as his own war stories, always emphasizing possibility. Even this morning, as he waited in Wilson's Landover driveway, he tried to recruit the neighborhood trash man.
"Nobody in Palmer Park will sign up," said Clarence Faison, 37, clearly taken aback by Ziegler's come-on.
"This man just did," said Ziegler, pointing to Wilson, just emerging from his house.
The recruiter failed to land Faison, but it was all in a day's work. "You never can tell who, where or when," he says. Treat one potential recruit well, he adds, and he'll spread the word to others.
Desire to serve
Besides, he has already recruited a neighbor of Wilson's, who will be sworn in next month. "You'd be surprised how many people simply want to serve their country," he says.
Back at the office, Sergeant Gray, who first signed on with the National Guard in 1980 and has spent more than 20 years in it, seemed a tad wearier than his underling as he surveyed their current prospects.
"It's a tough job," he says. "School standards are lower [nowadays], so there are fewer people out there who meet our requirements. More have criminal backgrounds than ever. Some, no doubt, are concerned about [the possibility of being called to] Iraq, so that makes them shy away. But you keep out there, stay positive and keep pushing the buttons you have."
One who does seem concerned is Wilson, a soft-spoken man who admittedly has little taste for combat. But he's happy to be back in the fold.
"I wouldn't want to go over there," he says. "But I do enjoy the military life. You don't meet people this high-caliber just anywhere. People in the military are dedicated and disciplined. They have goals."
That, not surprisingly, includes Ziegler, who in his spare time plans to become a volunteer diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, finish his biology degree at Bowie State University and perhaps, in time, become a scuba instructor in South Carolina.
For now, though, he's happy to have closed the deal with Wilson, who stopped by the Greenbelt Armory a few months ago to pick up some forgotten gear and found the sergeant on duty.
"I went in to get some career ideas," he says. "He was in there. He's kind of infectious. When a recruiter's good, it makes a difference. I think I'm going to enjoy being in his unit. He cares about what he's doing. He doesn't let up. He's good, and that matters."