In time of war, National Guard finds recruits, parents reluctant
WASHINGTON -- Brian Moody signs up more soldiers for the Army National Guard than just about any other recruiter in Indiana. Across kitchen tables around the state, he has usually had an easy time convincing young people and their families that the military offers them what they want.
Until he met Jeff Fayette's mom.
"I came out of that house, and the dad had not said anything, and the mom said: `The people at work tell me you're trained to lie to me. My son is not fighting for anybody in Iraq. He's going to stay right here and he's going to be my baby,' " Moody said. "That's the kind of feeling we're up against now. I tell you, it's real easy to get depressed."
As the war on terrorism stretches into its third year, and the violence in Iraq drags on, Moody and other military recruiters across the United States are starting to get nervous.
So far, the war's bad news has not translated into a widespread falloff in recruiting and retention. But in the National Guard, which for decades has bolstered its ranks by signing up high school juniors such as 17-year-old Fayette, the deepening anxiety is beginning to take its toll.
Reservists -- civilians trained as soldiers and subject to be called up for full-time duty by the military when needed -- were until recently asked to serve relatively infrequently. But over the last decade, their use has increased. And in the last two years, more than 212,000 reservists and National Guard troops have been mobilized for war overseas and the fight against terrorism at home, the biggest mobilization of citizen soldiers since World War II.
This year, for the first time in seven years, the Army National Guard -- the largest organization among the military reserves -- is uncertain of meeting its recruiting goals. As of Aug. 31, it was 13,459 soldiers short of its target of enlisting 62,000 troops by the end of this month. Concerned Pentagon officials are tracking the Guard's experience closely.
Recruiters say teenagers still show great interest in joining -- attracted by the opportunity to be part-time soldiers and go to college on the government's dime -- but resistance is mounting from parents who must give permission for under-18 recruits to enlist.
Amid the still-sluggish economy, job protection, benefits, and educational opportunities continue to make the active-duty military an attractive option, they say. And the surge of patriotism and excitement about military service after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks continue to propel potential enlistees through recruiters' doors.
But National Guard recruiters say they are coming up against a force at least as powerful as economics or patriotism: parental instincts. In Fayette's case, his mother, Julia Couch, said that if her youngest son had asked her to sign his enlistment papers a few years ago, when the world seemed more at peace, she probably would have done it. Military service goes back a long way in her family, and she said that on her factory worker's salary, it is hard to see how her son is going to afford college without financial help.
But on the winter evening when Moody sat with her on the family's front porch on Indianapolis' East Side, the television inside was tuned to a CNN reporter saying the United States was girding for war. Three of the kids Fayette used to play football with were in Afghanistan. And terrorist threats seemed to be everywhere.
" `Aren't there enough older people, grown men, to send over to Iraq? You have to go after 17-year-olds?' " Couch recalled asking Moody. "We are a very patriotic family. But I'm not going to sign what I felt like might be my son's death warrant."
With at least 29 National Guard members and 18 reservists dead in Iraq and with tours of duty in Iraq getting longer, recruiters concede that Couch is not the only parent to have blocked a child's enlistment. "What we're telling these kids, well, it's just not taking," said Steve Long, a National Guard recruiter in Fayetteville, N.C. "They'll tell you right up front that they are interested in the college program. `We didn't sign up to get shot at, we didn't sign up to get deployed,' they tell you. And these days, I can't sit across that dinner table at that family's house and tell them they're not going to be deployed."
The military continues to show an overall ability to keep recruiting new members, despite the increasing dangers and longer deployments facing troops. All of the active-duty services have met or exceeded recruiting and retention goals this year. The Army Reserve was 651 new recruits short of its goal in June, but has more than made up the shortfall since.
Military officials acknowledge that the retention numbers are somewhat deceiving.
Straining to ensure it has enough troops to handle its commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, the Pentagon issued orders this year preventing tens of thousands of soldiers who are serving in Iraq, or have served there recently, from leaving military service until further notice.
Now, the part-time soldiers are being asked to do more. This month the Army announced that about 20,000 reservists and National Guard troops stationed in Iraq would have to serve a full year from the time they arrived, extending their tours in some cases for as long as 11 months.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.