Free hunting and fishing licenses. More chances to get signing bonuses. Pink T-shirts for women.
The Army National Guard, which has fallen short of recruiting goals during the prolonged fighting in Iraq, is trying new marketing beyond the traditional enticement of college tuition aid.
“There are fewer people who are voluntarily expressing an interest — calling or returning postcards,” said Lt. Col. Dan Kenkel, spokesman for the Guard in Nebraska.
Nationally, the Army Guard reached 88 percent of its goal of 56,000 recruits by the end of September, signing up 49,210.
“Recruiting is tougher than it’s been in awhile,” said James Sims, spokesman for the Ohio Guard, which is about 500 off its target of 2,100 recruits.
Guard officials around the country blame concerns about the Iraq war, Pentagon orders that keep some soldiers from leaving active duty and going into the Guard, and turnover among recruiters, some of whom have been sent overseas.
Of the 100,000 Army Guard members sent to Iraq, about 110 have died.
In the past, young people saw enlisting as a way to get college tuition with little risk to themselves, said Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard. “Today, that risk has changed,” he said.
The pink T-shirt bearing the words “Soldier Girl” was designed by Sgt. Stacey Weston, a recruiter in Indiana, to get the attention of potential recruits. She said the Guard quickly ran out of the first order of 800 shirts.
“A lot of young ladies are under the impression they can’t be feminine if they join the military,” Weston said. “I wanted to dispel that myth.”
The Nebraska Guard was 87 soldiers short of its goal of 519 recruits. It is plastering several Dodge Stratuses with its decals and logos in hopes of catching the eye of potential recruits.
Ohio has used Hummers — with oversized tires, televisions and booming sound systems — for the past few years to draw a crowd. The Guard also plans to increase the number of recruiters from 81 to 106.
The number of job-skill categories that pay signing bonuses of $3,000 to $8,000 — such as driving heavy equipment — will be upped from 19 to 30 in the Kansas Army Guard. And thanks to the Legislature, its members will be eligible for free fishing and hunting licenses and passes to state parks beginning in January.
Recruiter Lt. Col. Jane Harris said there is no way to tell how many recruits have been influenced by the new marketing.
Some potential recruits said they were still drawn mainly to the promise of college aid. The benefit ranges from full tuition reimbursement to aid of up to $4,500 a year to loan repayments.
Ted Trautman, 20, of Minneapolis, considered joining for the tuition benefits, but decided against it because he didn’t want to fight in a war that might not be justified. Now a sophomore at Wittenberg University, he said none of the new incentives would have changed his mind.
Paul Meyers, 21, of Hilliard, noticed television ads that showed Guard members having fun and serving their country at the same time. An appeal to his patriotic duty was a factor in his decision to join the Guard, but tuition assistance was the main reason.
“Hopefully, I won’t get deployed, but if I do, it happens,” Meyers said.
The Air Guard was slightly more successful in recruiting, signing up 93 percent of its goal of 8,842.
Scott Woodham, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, said the Air Guard is smaller and may have benefited from not having to recruit as many new members. It deploys overseas for three months at a time as opposed to one-year stints for the Army Guard.
In Iowa, where this year’s 1,073 Army Guard recruits fell short of the usual 1,200, recruiters are shifting their focus to a slightly older target group — age 19 to 21 — because it seems a little more responsive to a patriotic appeal.
The Guard is handing out pens, key chains and posters bearing the American flag or with red, white and blue themes.
Guard Bureau spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Jones said that while such trinkets may not seem like much of an incentive to join, they can make potential recruits feel appreciated.
The Guard is also promoting local soldiers as role models, and members are appearing at more festivals and parades.
“That’s marketing,” Hapgood said. “That about people saying, ’There’s my neighbor, and I didn’t know he wore a uniform.”’