Recruitment Woes for U.S. Guard and Reserve

October 26, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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The current crisis

The war in Iraq is the United States’ first sustained conflict since the military shifted to an all-volunteer force in 1973. As the casualty count of U.S.forces climbs past 2,000, strains are beginning to show in areas such as soldier morale, recruiting numbers, and retention rates. Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in the Army’s National Guard and Reserve, which are facing severe personnel and equipment shortages and “rapidly degenerating into a broken force.” So wrote Lieutenant General James Helmly, the commander of Reserve units in Iraq, in a leaked memo to the Pentagon back in January. Reservists, whose numbers deployed overseas have swelled in recent years, now make up nearly half of the 152,000 forces in Iraq (49,000 National Guard, 22,000 Army Reserve, and 4,000 Marine Reserve). With one-third of all reservists deployed around the globe, this has added further strain to domestic operations, including the cleanup of the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The history of citizen soldiers

The origins of the National Guard precede the founding of the United States—the Massachusetts National Guard, for instance, traces its lineage back to 1636. The Guard was consolidated in the late nineteenth century when, in response to a series of railway strikes, business and state leaders built armories and expanded the powers of these state militias, which eventually morphed into what is known today as the National Guard.

During the Cold War, the Army Reserve and National Guard were called out primarily to provide assistance in riot control, strikes, and disaster-relief operations such as floods, fires, and hurricanes. In the Vietnam War era, their roles expanded to include military policing and engineering. Traditionally, members serve one weekend per month and two weeks per year. “[We] were considered weekend warriors,” said Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania and former Guard member, before a House Government Reform Committee on October 20. “The contemplation that we would go into active duty theaters, like Iraq and Afghanistan, was literally something no one ever considered.”

After September 11, 2001, the role of the reserve army changed, says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jones. “They are no longer a strategic reserve”—that is, a citizen army of last resort—“but are an operational reserve,” he says, able to be deployed to the frontlines, not just to provide backup back home. The National Guard can be called up for active-duty at any time by presidential order, and reservists have served in wartime settings in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the first Gulf War, and the Balkans, but never in direct-combat roles. Iraq marks the first time the U.S. military has had a massive mobilization of National Guard forces unaccompanied by a draft. “We’ve never been here before,” Jones says.

Poorly armed and dangerous

The National Guard and Army Reserve’s portion of the U.S. military’s death count in Iraq has doubled since last year. In August and September, reservists accounted for more than half of the U.S. casualties in Iraq; August was the deadliest month of the war for reservists. In total, more than 300 reservists, or just under a quarter of the casualty count, have died since March 2003. As the gap between the roles of regular armed forces and reservists narrows, experts say U.S. citizen soldiers are finding themselves increasingly serving longer terms under more dangerous conditions. “They think the compact [they signed up for] has been broken,” says Cindy Williams, principal research scientist for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. “And there’s a sense the government doesn’t treat National Guard members honestly.”

Not helping matters are equipment shortages, famously brought to light by Tennessee National Guard member Thomas Wilson, whose question last December to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of armored vehicles drew cheers from fellow reservists. The problem, Williams says, is twofold: First, too often reservists get the Army’s “hand-me-down,” or second-rate, equipment; second, they are not given multiple sets.

The National Guard only has approximately one-third of its necessary equipment, says Jack Harrison, a National Guard spokesman. Worse, as U.S. Congressman Thomas Davis (R.-VA) told the House Government Reform Committee October 20, the reservists deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan take the “newest equipment with them, leaving the home front with an outdated and dwindling supply of gear.” Davis estimates the National Guard needs another $7 billion to be fully equipped with radios, trucks, construction machinery, and medical gear. Its current budget for equipment is just 11 percent of the apportioned Army’s budget. Yet this is nothing new, Harrison says, “We’ve had an equipment deficit for the last twenty-five years.”

Also contributing to low troop morale are financial burdens. Soldiers frequently complain of not being paid enough, or on time. An estimated 40 percent of National Guard members receive less money being enlisted than they would in their civilian jobs. Further, some say healthcare and other benefits are neither timely nor sufficient. According to the Associated Press, one in five guardsmen does not have adequate health insurance. 

Low morale means low recruitment

All of the above has had a noticeable effect on recruitment and retention figures, experts say. This past fiscal year, which ended September 30, the National Guard missed its targeted goal of signing up 63,000 recruits by 19 percent. This marks only the second time the Guard has missed its targeted level since 1994 (by contrast, the Army and Navy Reserves missed their goals by 16 percent; the Marine Corps and Air Force Reserves met their goals). The Guard’s retention of troops has also declined in recent years. Previously, about one-half of new recruits were prior-service members of the Army. That figure has shrunk to 35 percent. All told, the National Guard is roughly 15,000 troops short of its stated goal of 350,000, according to Jones.

Part of the recruitment problem stems from the war’s unpopularity. Recent polls indicate that slightly more than half of Americans say the war is not worth the costs. Television images of dead or wounded soldiers have had a negative impact on so-called influencers such as parents or relatives. Williams says parental support for enlisting their children has fallen in direct proportion to the waning support for the war. As such, recruiters have targeted their advertising campaigns increasingly at parents, of whom polls show 75 percent said they would not enlist their children in military service. “We’ve had to reset our entire messaging,” Jones says.

Another problem facing recruiters is the U.S. economy, which has seen some improvements in recent years. Experts agree the better off the economy, the more difficult recruiting becomes for any branch of the military. “There are other alternatives for people out there,” Vic Snyder (D-AK) recently told the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee. Therefore, to boost its numbers, the National Guard has bumped up its bonus for non-prior recruits from $8,000 to $10,000. The Guard has asked for $20,000. “We have not been scientific enough on how we structured our signing bonuses,” Jones says. “If there was not a war on, $10,000 would not be that bad.” Reenlistment bonuses for prior-service Guard and Army Reserve members have increased threefold, from $5,000 to $15,000.

But not everyone agrees that financial incentives work, or are cost-effective. “The active Army has reached its limits of getting more people by throwing money at them” says David Segal, a military expert at the University of Maryland. “The Guard is on the verge of learning that lesson.” Steven Koziak, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says financial incentives work only if they are targeted (i.e. by occupation or by branch), in cash, and upfront rather than deferred. TheU.S.military has allocated enormous sums toward improving retirement benefits for veterans, but “the last thing [potential enlistees] ask is: ‘What does my retirement plan look like?’” Williams says, adding that many youths, when deciding whether to enlist, say social cohesion or a search for adventure often trumps tangible rewards like money or health benefits.

Further, economic incentives are less effective when the country is at war, Segal says. Same goes for college tuition-reimbursement plans. Hence, recruiters have begun emphasizing patriotism and service to country and deemphasizing incentives like financial aid. Ads, for example, now read “I am a soldier” instead of showing the recruit in cap and gown. The trouble, Jones says, is there are alternative sources of income for post-secondary-school education. “College money used to be the great equalizer, but with so many states now offering state tuition for anyone with a B or a C [grade-point average], it’s rivaled the buying power and appeal of the National Guard,” he says. “Even McDonald’s has a college-tuition program.”

Hopeful signs ahead

Recruiters for the National Guard are growing more optimistic. The Guard has hit its target recruitment numbers for the past three months ending in September. Part of that is due to the financial incentives passed by Congress in July; part is due to the additional 2,400 volunteer recruiters the Guard enlisted over the past year, bringing the total up to 5,700. The number of National Guard brigades deployed to Iraqis expected to decrease from seven to two in the upcoming year (they are expected to be relieved by active Army brigades).

Nevertheless, military officials admit this remains one of the most challenging times for National Guard and Army Reserve since the country switched to an all-volunteer military in 1973. While a few critics have called for a reinstatement of the draft, a better plan, says Michele Flournoy, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, is to communicate more effectively a national call for service. “George W. Bush hasn’t made a Kennedy-esque speech,” she says. With support for the war waning and the casualty count in Iraq increasing, experts predict it may take more time and effort to convince a new generation of reservists to ask not what their country can do for them.   

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