It was no surprise when Bruce Ziegler enlisted in the National Guard. After six years in the Army and two tours abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sergeant Ziegler had come to a conclusion about his life: Whatever he did, he wanted to serve his country.
Yet when it came time to decide what to do with this strait-laced, close-cropped soldier from rural Kansas, the National Guard decided that he could serve America best not in the streets of Baghdad or the caves of the Hindu Kush, but at a small desk here in the pallid light of Laurel Armory.
Ziegler is a recruiter, and as the Army Guard and Reserve - as well as the Army itself - begin consistently missing their recruitment goals, his job has emerged as one of the most pressing concerns of the war on terror.
Last month, the Army missed its monthly recruiting target for the first time since 2000. The Army National Guard and Reserve haven't reached their monthly targets since October. The Pentagon has responded by fattening bonuses for soldiers, training more recruiters like Ziegler, and raising the top age for Guard and Reserve recruits from 34 to 39.
Their success is crucial to the course of the Iraq war. In the first sustained test of the all-volunteer military created by the abolition of the draft in 1973, the Army has had to rely heavily on citizen soldiers, who make up 45 percent of US forces in Iraq. Now, that supply chain is showing signs of stress, and some experts say the current data suggest that the task of maintaining a full force in the Middle East will only get harder. "The longer this war goes on, the more difficult it's going to be to get more recruits," says Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Five months into its recruiting year, the Army Reserve is 10 percent behind its goal and the National Guard is 24 percent off.
To be sure, recruiting in wartime has always been difficult, hence the need for a draft in the past. Moreover, as the economy improves, more potential recruits are finding financial security without turning to military service to pay for bills or college.
Yet the Iraq war has also produced unique stresses on the military and on recruiting, particularly for the Guard and Reserve. "The National Guard has changed radically," says Lt. Col. Mike Milord of the National Guard Bureau. "Historically, the National Guard has been here to be available for a World War III-type scenario."
It was a relative haven from active military service, where members could establish civilian lives with some sense of normalcy. As a result, active soldiers at the end of their enlistment would often join the ranks of the Guard and Reserve, providing about half of their total force.
Today, however, the Guard and Reserve are in the thick of the action. Since 2001, more than 60,000 Guard and Reserve troops have been deployed at least twice, blurring the line between active and reserve soldiers and affecting recruitment efforts. Those soldiers willing to stay in Iraq are cashing in on large incentives to reenlist in the active Army. Those who want to get out are avoiding the Guard and Reserve, because they know they could be sent back. "We've changed our recruiting," says Colonel Milord. "We've had to get more of the non-prior-service market."
The difficulties betray deeper questions about whether the size and structure of the current military is adequate at a time of substantial US intervention worldwide. The Army must rely so heavily on the Guard and Reserve because it is not large enough, and because some key nationbuilding duties - such as policing and engineering - are handled partly by the Guard and Reserve, some experts say.
"The Army - and by that I mean active, Guard, and Reserve - is simply too small and improperly structured to successfully fulfill and perform all the nation is asking it to do," Rep. John McHugh (R) of New York told a House hearing last month.
So far, the Pentagon has rejected the notion that the pace of deployments is unsustainable. It has also dismissed any potential need for a draft. In the long term, many analysts agree that the Army could grow, if it wishes, using volunteers. But the failure simply to maintain current strength shows the challenges of recruiting in wartime.
But recruiter Ziegler is not ready to concede defeat. Dressed in his camouflage fatigues, he is unfailingly optimistic, ringing every affirmative answer with a "Roger, that." The stepson of a Kansas oil man and one of a dozen children, Ziegler speaks with the conviction of a true believer. The Army changed his life, and he thinks he can help change other lives, too.
When he was 20, working odd jobs in his stepfather's oil fields and in the local Wal-Mart, pictures of the military in Kosovo inspired him to want to help others. Nowadays, he spends his hours trying to find kids just like him. "If I make a difference in one person's life, that's a big deal," he insists.
Ziegler is one of 2,100 recruiters added by the Guard and Reserve this year. Those additions, together with the new bonuses for enlistment and the relaxed age limit, give the military hope it can reverse the recent trend.
For his part, Ziegler is no stranger to the frustrations of recruiting. Most mornings, he journeys to high schools and shopping malls, setting up information booths and talking to kids. In the evenings, he makes phone calls and house visits to potential recruits.
The questions and concerns are always the same. "What is the Guard?" "Will I be sent to Iraq?" Or, just as often: "Will my son be sent to Iraq?" Parents are becoming more involved in decisions.
"There is more opposition among parents, and particularly among parents who might normally be open to the economic benefits [of enlisting]," says David Segal, a military expert at the University of Maryland. "Now they're saying, 'Getting killed isn't worth going to college.' "
Ziegler can respond only with what he knows. He tells parents about how he helped rebuild Iraqi schools, restore power to Iraqi neighborhoods, and train Iraqi police. "You might see a soldier hurt," he says. "But he's doing something he loves and he's giving back. Once I tell them that, they kind of relate."
Still, in three months on the job, both people he has enlisted were prior service members. "It can be hard," Ziegler says. But then, just as quickly, his face brightens. This new soldier in the Guard's recruiting offensive is a man who volunteered to go on high school recruiting trips when he was still in basic training. "I approach this with a positive attitude."