May 26, 2005

In search of recruits, Guard sweetens the pot

By Jeff Lester
The Post Senior Writer

National Guard leaders admit that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have made the job of recruiting new troops harder.

At the end of last year, the Guard nationwide fell 25 to 30 percent short of its recruiting target.

In response, officials have added new incentives to lure recruits.

The maximum Guard enlistment age has increased from 34 to 39, according to Virginia Army National Guard Sgt. Brett Trinkle, recruiter for the Big Stone Gap-based 189th Engineer Co. A 39-year-old recruit who likes Guard service still has time to earn a 20-year retirement benefit, he noted.

The Guard continues to offer up to 100 percent tuition for any member attending a public college or university in Virginia, he noted, and full time students can get paid up to $650 per month.

Trinkle tells high school students that during one two-day weekend drill, a Guard soldier can earn roughly the same amount of money they'd get from a week at McDonald's.

Other benefit changes include the following:

  • New recruits who take a three-year enlistment for one of 30 critical military jobs get a $10,000 signing bonus. Previously, the benefit was offered for six-year enlistments in only 10 critical jobs. Most of the jobs in the 189th Engineer Co. qualify for this bonus, Trinkle said.
  • Recruits with previous military service can get a $15,000 bonus for a six-year enlistment, or $7,500 for a three-year enlistment, in a job for which they're already trained. Prior service veterans also have the option of enlisting for only one year to see if they like Guard service.
  • Guard members can get a $15,000 bonus for a six-year re-enlistment or $7,500 for a three-year re-enlistment, paid out in one lump sum.

Trinkle said it's too soon to know how close the Big Stone Gap unit is to reaching its recruitment goals. More than 40 members of the 189th deployed to Iraq last year with the 276th Engineer Battalion and continue to drill with that unit. Those soldiers will return to the 189th during the summer, at which time he'll have a better sense of how many plan to re-enlist, he said.

The morale of troops who have returned from Iraq seems very high, Trinkle said, and many soldiers have told him they plan to stay in the Guard.

The Virginia National Guard's leader, Maj. Gen. Claude Williams, discussed the recruitment challenge during a May 13 visit to Mountain Empire Community College.

Williams acknowledged that while the sales pitch for Guard service continues to focus on generous education benefits and signing bonuses, recruiters are appealing more than ever to their prospects' sense of patriotism and their need to find a purpose.

Recruiters tell prospective troops that joining the Guard will be a defining moment in their lives, he said.

Some young men and women considering future careers — and many parents — worry that joining the Guard today brings the strong likelihood of ending up in a war somewhere. But a surprising number of parents believe the risks are worth the maturity and purpose their children will gain from military service, Williams said.

It's hard for a Guard member to be pulled out of college and deployed to a combat zone, but worse things can happen, he said. More young people in the United States are killed on a regular basis by drinking and driving, he noted.

Most current Guard troops aren't in it for the money, Williams believes. "Most would say you can't pay them enough money."

They're in it for the special bond that is formed by soldiers, their sense of duty to country and a need to accomplish things, he said.

But the danger of combat, and its demands on U.S. forces overall, have taken a toll on Guard recruiting nationwide, Williams admitted.

In the past, the Guard recruited a lot of active-duty troops who join after their separation from service. But that source has mostly dried up because the Defense Department's "stop-loss" provision has kept many active-duty troops in a combat zone after their expected date to leave the service, Williams said.

Along with increasing the signing bonuses, the Guard has added 1,400 more recruiters nationally.

The Virginia Guard is currently about 400 troops short of its recruiting goals, but the gap will be filled by the end of the year, Williams said.

For more information on joining the Guard locally, contact Trinkle at 276/523-8244, by cell phone at 540/290-0870 or by e-mail at brett.trinkle@va.ngb.army.mil.

FORCE STRUCTURE

Within the next three years, the National Guard is expected to complete a massive shift of unit duties and specialties. The Guard's current structure of units, designed to augment active duty troops facing a Cold War-era threat from the Soviet Union, will shift to a more flexible and easily deployable warfighting force that can face a variety of threats around the world.

That means several changes locally, according to Williams and Trinkle.

The 189th has converted from a medium girder bridge company to a multi-role bridge company that can deploy "float" bridges used often in combat.

Now under the command of Gate City's 1030th Engineer Battalion, the 189th will become a subordinate unit of the 276th, with headquarters in Richmond. The 189th will be split between Big Stone Gap and Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, with 75 to 80 soldiers based here.

The 1030th Engineer Battalion will convert to a transportation battalion, including the Gate City-based 1032nd Transportation Co. The 1031st Engineer Co., now based in Pennington Gap, will convert to a support company supplied with bulldozers and heavy equipment, with its headquarters in Cedar Bluff.

Lester is a senior writer for The Post in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

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