Forced to shrink, National Guard gets pickier

COLUMBUS, Ohio - September 3, 2009 Under pressure from the Pentagon to trim its ranks, the Guard has been quietly phasing in new restrictions that make it harder to enlist.

"To get in now, you have to be the cream of the crop," said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Clum, a recruiter in Ohio.

Military officials portray the cutbacks as an effort to trim excess from a Guard force that was bloated from years of successful recruiting, especially during the recession.

But there are suspicions inside the Guard and out that the reductions are part of an effort to shift the burden of fighting overseas onto the active-duty Army and ease the public outcry over the way that Guard units - part-time soldiers normally called into action during hurricanes and other disasters at home - have been sent on long, repeated combat tours in Iraq.

In fact, while the Pentagon has cut the National Guard by about 9,000 soldiers to 358,200 over the past six months or so, the nearly 549,000-strong active-duty Army is under orders to recruit 70,000 new soldiers by the end of September and 22,000 more in the coming fiscal year as the fighting in Iraq winds down and the war in Afghanistan escalates.

Under restrictions issued by the National Guard's top recruiting commander early this year, the maximum enlistment age was lowered from 42 to 35. And the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Test, the exam required by all branches of the military, was raised for the Guard from 31 to 50 out of a possible 100.

Also, the Guard stopped forgiving potential recruits for offenses such as theft, assault, driving under the influence or chronic lawbreaking. And it stopped issuing medical waivers, which allowed recruits to be admitted despite health problems as serious as an extreme food allergy and as minor as a painful bout of acne.

In addition, the Guard's budget for bonus money has been cut. While most recruits since 2006 got $20,000 just for signing up, now only a precious few are eligible for any bonus money at all.

Col. Mike Jones, the Guard's top recruiting commander, said a higher percentage of applicants are being turned away compared with just a few years ago, though he would not give precise figures.

Several states, including Georgia and New York, have long waiting lists of the aspiring soldiers they have rejected.

For some recruiters, the shrinking Guard is a source of frustration and envy, particularly since the regular Army is growing.

"We literally turn people away every day that want to serve and we can't take them," said Lt. Col. Anthony Abbott, recruiting commander for the Georgia Army National Guard. "Sometimes you've got to scratch your head and ask why."

It's an about-face from just a few years ago, when the Guard embarked on a recruiting rush with the start of the Iraq war. In 2003, the Guard was at its lowest strength in history with about 330,000 members, down from an all-time high of 457,000 in 1989.

In May, the Guard accepted 3,026 recruits, compared with 5,311 in May 2008. But the Guard gave no figures on how many men and women applied.

John Pike, director of the military think tank, said the government is trying to reduce the outcry over the heavy use of the Guard in the Iraq war and wants to return the force to its original part-time status.

"They used the Guard a lot more than they had planned several times in Iraq just because that was all they had," Pike said. "They're increasing the active component end strength in order to avoid that in the future."

He added: "In the middle of the war, you do what you have to do. But now that things are slowing down a little bit and they have a little more time, they are trying to do what they want to do rather than what they have to do."

The tougher enlistment standards may have worked all too well. In June and July, the Guard failed to meet its recruiting goals because of what Jones said may have been a combination of the worsening bloodshed in Afghanistan and the higher standards.

In fact, over the past couple of weeks, Jones told Guard commanders in 40 states they are free to reverse some of the restrictions.

"We might have cut a little too deep, too fast," Jones said. "Did we swing too far? Did we cut too much bonus money?" He said the Guard is "working right now to try to get back the momentum that we had in the early part of the year."

For people like 19-year-old Christopher Runyon of Glouster, Ohio, it has been one rejection after another. Runyon has failed the aptitude test three times, getting a 45 on his most recent attempt. A few months ago, that would have been a passing grade.

Runyon said he is still in contact with his local recruiter and plans to retake the test.

"I really got down on myself and I really got discouraged," he said. "But I'm still trying, you know?"

But the future does not look promising. The Guard will release 1,400 recruiters from duty at the end of September. And in the fiscal year that begins in October, the Guard will lose more than $200 million in funding for recruiting and retention.

John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, an advocacy group, said it makes little sense to turn off the Guard's recruiting machine when it has been the most successful of any military branch at bringing in high-quality soldiers.

That success stemmed from cutting-edge recruiting methods, including advertising through NASCAR, he said.

"If you want to reduce the burden on the Army Guard, grow the Army Guard," Goheen said. "Therefore the burden is reduced because we'll have more units."


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