RAPID CITY, S.D. – Despite Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement last week of potential cuts to troop numbers across the military due to the sequester, the South Dakota National Guard is still looking for new recruits to join its ranks.
While the Defense Department has made no decision to reduce the overall size of the Army and Air National Guard’s approximately 463,700 members, which includes about 4,300 South Dakota Guardsmen, South Dakota Army and Air National Guard recruiters are working to make sure they meet their current end strength goals.
“Right now we need new recruits to join,” said Lt. Col. Kory Knight, commander for the SDARNG’s Recruiting and Retention Command. “We have openings in about 60 positions across the state that we need South Dakota’s finest to fill, both men and women.”
Knight said while South Dakota has typically ranked as one of the top states in the nation when it comes to recruiting, numbers have dropped off in recent months. Knight believes the budget uncertainty is contributing to the decline in new enlistees.
“With all the national-level talk of budget cuts, furloughs and possible troop reductions across the different services, I think it has created a false impression among prospective recruits and the general public that the Guard doesn’t need new members,” said Knight.
“When our recruiters are out in our South Dakota communities talking to high school and college students, they seem to be surprised we are there, said Master Sgt. John Mallinger, senior non- commissioned officer-in-charge of recruiting. “They think we are already reducing our numbers or that we have all the Soldiers we need.”
And it’s not just the Army Guard that is in need; Air Guard recruiting is also trying to keep up with demand. According to Senior Master Sgt. Brian Voges, recruiting and retention superintendent, the Air Guard is short on filling positions.
“We have 10 more projected losses for the remainder of the year, so we need approximately 22 more enlistments to reach 100 percent manning,” he said. “As far as next year – we typically lose about eight members per month or 96 a year – our goal would be to at least meet that number or exceed it so we stay at or above 100 percent.”
While 540 members of the Guard’s full-time force have begun to endure furloughs imposed by the government sequester, unaffected are traditional Guard members who drill one weekend a month, two weeks a year.
“Although the Guard’s full-time, federal-technician work force is being affected by the furlough, our part- time traditional Guard members are not,” said Mallinger. “They are still receiving all their pay and benefits.”
Mallinger also believes some confusion has been generated in the public from multiple sources, which has unintentionally steered potential recruits away.
“I think potential recruits have gotten bits and pieces of information in the media or from friends when it comes to how the budget uncertainty will affect the different components of the military,” he said. “They hear or assume one piece of information about one component and relate it to the Guard, and it inadvertently affects their decision to inquire about joining the Guard.”
“A couple of my friends have been asking why we are trying so hard to recruit when they have heard the whole military doesn’t need people,” said Pfc. Allison Morrisette, 19, a new enlistee to the Guard and freshman at Chadron State University. “They have active-duty Army friends who say that the Army has slowed or even stopped recruiting efforts.”
Morrisette, who has been working for the Recruiting Command this summer, said young people don’t differentiate the regular Army from the National Guard.
“About every person we talk too – 80 or 90 percent – seem to think we are the same as the Army and don’t need more recruits,” said Morrisette. “They are really shocked to know there is difference between the Guard and the regular military.”
While in recent months the active-duty Army has reported about scaling back recruitment to prevent exceeding their end strength goals, this is not true for the South Dakota Guard. It’s not just the 60 Soldiers the Army Guard is hoping to gain by the year’s end; Knight said the organization is shooting to recruit another 350-400 members for next year.
“As our Guardsmen begin to retire, separate or transfer out of the organization, we need new recruits to come in behind them and take their place,” said Knight. “In order for the Guard to remain a viable force for our state and nation, we need new members to make sure we maintain our troop readiness levels.”
“The ‘we are hiring’ sign is always on at the Air Guard,” said Voges. “With the aging force, retirements are always happening, thus creating new opportunities for those who want to serve.”
Despite the budget uncertainty of the nation, Knight said now is the best time for prospective recruits to take a look at joining the Guard. In an economy with a struggling job market and rising education costs, Knight says the Guard can provide the financial and educational boost students may need.
“We provide many educational benefits for college and vocational schools, a steady part-time check and an opportunity to learn a specialized skill,” said Knight. “Soldiers can specialize in fields such as engineering, communications and computer systems and medical, which can easily transfer into a civilian career.”
The Army National Guard funds up to 100 percent of tuition costs and fees, up to $4,500 per person, per fiscal year. The state of South Dakota also offers its Guard members a 50 percent tuition waiver at state- supported universities and technical schools. Knight says these incentives may also be used in addition to the Montgomery G.I. Bill and Pell grants. New members may also be eligible to receive student loan repayment.
“On top of the training that a new recruit receives, they can also receive up to tens of thousands of dollars to pursue their post-secondary education,” said Knight. “With many graduates coming out of college having accumulated huge debt from school loans, the Guard can significantly reduce the financial burden they would have to endure. With all these opportunities and incentives, there is no better time to join.”
“Most join for schooling benefits and a paycheck,” said Voges, of non-prior service applicants who join the Air Guard. “For the prior-service applicants, they list healthcare and retirement benefits along with they miss serving their country.”
“The educational benefits are helping a lot,” said Morrisette, who is studying to become a dental hygienist. “The Guard has a tuition assistance program and the G.I Bill. and it helps a lot more than what I initially thought prior to joining.”
While the fiscal constraints of the nation are yet to be resolved, South Dakota recruiters continue to search for prospective recruits and counter the notion the Guard does not need new members. Morrisette and Voges say anyone interested in joining needs to get the correct information from the source.
“We have been able to overcome and educate individuals that the cutbacks are not the case for the Guard,” said Voges. “We continue to reiterate that our mission is strong and a vital part of the total force concept.”
“My advice to anyone who is thinking about joining the National Guard would be to talk to a recruiter and get the facts,” said Morrisette. “Don’t rely on rumors or speculate about what might happen. If you want to serve, we need you.”