Guard recruiters try realism and succeed

Whenever potential recruits ask about their chances of being shipped off to Iraq if they enlist, National Guard recruiter Pierre Chatman doesn't sugarcoat it: 100 percent, he tells them.

"We are the military. That's our job," says Houston's top recruiter. "We used to stress protecting the home front - and it was easier to do. But all that has changed."

Indeed, local flare-ups used to be the purview of the "civilian soldier," but since 9/11, that job description has changed - and the Guard has had to change recruiting strategies, too, to meet enlistment goals.

Remarkably, it's having some success. While active branches have experienced recruiting woes during wartime, the Army National Guard is now seeing its ranks rise for the first time in three years.

The recruiting increase is especially marked here in Texas.

Reasons for the Guard's national turnaround are many, including its significant signing bonuses, the beefing up of its recruiting staff, and enticements for those already enlisted to recruit others.

But most important, say experts, is the Guard's new honesty about its mission. This honesty is especially resonating with those who want to serve their country, even in war, but on a part-time basis only.

"The National Guard was accustomed to being a strategic reserve, called up only when we were involved in a long-term war," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland in College Park. "But the global war on terror transformed it into an operational reserve. And that has required a reconceptualization of what the Guard was about."

In the past few years, he says, the Guard has done a good job of bringing expectations in line with the new reality. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, posters and billboards advertising the National Guard showed citizen-soldiers standing next to students in caps and gowns - promoting the Guard as a way to pay for college.

"The new posters show a soldier joining the National Guard to be a soldier, while the Army is still promoting money for college," says Professor Segal. "The Guard has done a better job of adapting to the fact that we are at war."

The Guard began to see a decrease in its recruiting numbers after the war in Iraq began. It attributes that to its more active role in Iraq and the rebounding US economy, says Jack Harrison of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.

To combat declining numbers, the Army National Guard has almost doubled its recruiting force to 5,100 in the past 20 months. And in December, it rolled out the Guard Recruiter Assistant Program: If those already enlisted bring someone deemed eligible to a recruiting office, they receive $1,000. And once that new recruit ships off to basic training, they receive another $1,000.

"This is one of the many brand-new ideas and is an example of successful outside-the-box thinking," says Mr. Harrison.

In fact, things began turning around last June. And by the end of February, which marked the first five months of the fiscal year, the Army National Guard had already achieved more than half of its recruiting goal.

While other states are doing well, Texas is having an exceptional year. In the first five months of the fiscal year, it exceeded its annual goal by 648 new recruits.

The state recruited 322 new citizen- soldiers in March, its best month in a decade. It also recruited 78 "reserve component" soldiers - those who sign up for the National Guard after leaving active duty.

"Texans are very patriotic and have a long tradition of National Guard service," says Lt. Col. Ronald McLaurin, recruiting and retention commander for the Texas Army National Guard.

He also believes hurricanes Katrina and Rita led to increased interest here because the disasters highlighted the Guard's strengths at home. But credit also has to go to Texas' innovative programs and dedicated recruiters, says Colonel McLaurin.

For instance, a year and a half ago, the Texas Guard enacted one of the most generous reserve-component programs, allowing those soldiers who sign up for the Guard before they leave active duty to receive a $15,000 signing bonus and a commitment that they won't be deployed for two years.

The Texas Guard has also added 70 new recruiters, for a total of 202, in the past two years. Most of them are from the communities they are working in, and they must apply for their positions as opposed to being assigned recruiting duty, as is the case in active military branches.

"Our Army counterparts are forced into recruiting. They are trained and stuck in a place they don't know," says Sergeant Chatman. "Because we have to apply, we are more enthused about selling the product."

One of his recruiters, Kimberly Raney, is on her way to speak with a potential new recruit, a Houston teenager who is about to graduate from high school.

Specialist Raney says the No. 1 question she gets from potential recruits, parents, and teachers is, "Will I get sent to Iraq?"

"A lot of recruiters want to sugarcoat it, but we try to give both sides," she says as she pulls up to the apartment complex where 17-year-old Tammie Hickey lives.

When they get settled, the teen blurts out, "I don't want to do the military thing. I don't want to be trained or none of that." She adds, "I just want to go to college."

Raney explains that if she is sent to fight, she won't be on the front lines because women are not allowed in combat positions. "You will not be kicking down doors like you see on TV. But if you find another way to pay for your college, I'm all for it," she says.

Suddenly appeased, Tammie says as quickly as before, "OK, I want to go. I'm ready."

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