updated 9/23/2004 5:54:49 PM ET 2004-09-23T21:54:49

The Army National Guard will fall 5,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal this year, in part because fewer in the active-duty force are switching to part-time service, knowing how frequently Guard units are being dispatched to war zones, the Guard’s top general said Thursday.

It will be the first time since 1994 that the Guard has missed its sign-up goal.

Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in an Associated Press interview that he’s concerned by the shortfall but believes it will not be a long-term trend.

“This is something that can’t be ignored. I’ve got to watch it every day,” he said. “But it’s not something that I would say indicates that we’re breaking. I think it indicates that the recruiting climate has gotten tougher, and that means we need to adjust to a tougher market.”

The Guard had set a goal of 56,000 recruits for the budget year ending Sept. 30 but is likely to end up with about 51,000, he said.

Blum cited two main reasons why the Guard is attracting fewer soldiers from the active-duty force — a pool of recruits that in some states accounts for half of the new Guard members in a given year.

One reason is the active-duty Army is prohibiting soldiers already in units in Iraq or Afghanistan — or preparing to deploy there — from leaving the service, even if their enlistment term is up.

The other reason, Blum said, is that active-duty soldiers know a growing number of Guard units are being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, so they figure there is little to be gained, in terms of reduced personal risk, by switching from active duty to the Guard.

“If you want to get away from active duty and you don’t want to take a chance that you’re going to deploy that quickly again, then you probably are going to make a clean break for a while and not join the Guard or Reserve, and so we are suffering,” Blum said.

86th Brigade bound for Iraq
He also disclosed that the 86th Brigade of the Vermont Army National Guard has been added to the list of Guard units told they will deploy to Iraq for the next troop rotation, which is under way. That unit is likely to go early next year, another official said.

Attracting recruits who have no previous military service, meanwhile, has been made more difficult because many Guard units are spending a year or more abroad and therefore are not available to persuade young people in their communities to join the military, Blum said.

“Our most effective recruiting is word-of-mouth,” he said. “When you have 27 percent of your force deployed overseas, they’re not doing much word-of-mouth recruiting.”

To respond to the shortfall, Blum said he will increase the number of recruiters and put more effort into targeting young people in high school and college with no military service.

Key factor: Retention
Another key aspect of maintaining Guard strength is retention — the Guard members who re-enlist. Blum said the Army Guard is meeting its retention goal this year and finding re-enlistments are higher in units that deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan than those that did not.

He said he believes this reflects the sense of pride and commitment that develops in Guard units when they are put in harm’s way, as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 114 Army National Guard soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

Blum expressed confidence that the Army National Guard and Air National Guard, both of which he oversees, can keep up their fast pace of activity both domestically and abroad over the long term, but only if he can provide more predictability on the frequency of mobilizations.

He said he would like to be able to assure Guard members, their families and employers that they will be called on no more than once every four to six years. He said he cannot do that now because there are not enough deployable combat units in the active and reserve forces. But a reorganization now under way in the active and reserve forces will eventually increase the forces available for deployment, he said.

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