Attrition: Repairing The Guard


October 23, 2010: Not surprisingly, the U.S. Army has met all its recruiting and retention (getting key personnel to stay in) goals for the last year. The recession has played a major role in that, as well as the reduction in time troops will spend overseas in a combat zone. Recruiting and retention has been good for the past few years, and that has enabled the army to repair some of the damage suffered from five years of intense combat in Iraq.

Less publicized, and more important, have been army efforts to repair damage to its National Guard (NG, a reserve force), after heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan, has succeeded. NG enlistments have been far exceeding goals for the last two years In the few years, recruiting has been so good that some states have reached numbers they haven't seen in decades. The New York National Guard, for example, has reached full strength for the first time since the 1970s. The Guard represents 35 percent of the million active duty and reserve troops in the army, and are essential in war, and peace (for natural disasters). Since September 11, 2001, two-thirds of the 358,000 NG troops have gone overseas (compared to 94 percent of the active duty troops). That includes many who have gone more than once. This caused a lot of morale problems for troops who never through they would be activated for that long.

So one of the big reforms was an army pledge that NG soldiers only go overseas, at most, one year out of five, Without that kind of "dwell time" (the four years spent at home) getting people to join, and stay in, the guard is difficult. There are many potential solutions to this problem, like retraining more troops for jobs that are needed overseas, and taking a closer look at medical profiles that prevent troops from going overseas (but there are places in the combat zone that are about as safe as a stateside posting). Current dwell time is over three years, but by making sure more people go, using more civilians and, now cutting force levels in Iraq, the dwell time is steadily increasing.

The NG is a uniquely American military organization. Basically, it is the armed forces of each of the fifty states (and territories as well). This reflects the federal nature of the U.S. government. The NG is also the modern version of the centuries old militia forces. Except when "federalized" (usually for combat duty these day), the NG troops are controlled by the state governor. In that role, they are used for natural emergencies or cases of civil disorder. NG troops are now trained for counter-terrorism operations as well.

Many NG troops are former active duty soldiers in the army, and join the NG, usually after four years on active duty, for the extra money, and because they are familiar and comfortable with the work. Most NG units are in suburban or rural areas, where the army pay is often higher than the local averages, and thus a good way to pick up some extra money in what is essentially a part time job. In addition, since September 11, 2001, thousands of the NG troops have volunteered for the active army, most inspired by patriotism, and many by the fact that they would be making more than their current civilian job.

But spending 18 months on active duty (six months training and preparing, and 12 months overseas) was more of a hassle for some than for others. For single troops, it was something of an adventure, especially if they saw little combat. Most NG troops got assigned to support jobs, leaving the active duty units to handle the heaviest combat. But if you were in a transportation or military police unit, you could see a lot of action, and take lots of losses. For married troops with lucrative jobs, this foreign duty was often a real strain.

The large number of NG troops on active duty in the last nine years forced the army to deal with long-standing complaints of unfair treatment (compared to active duty troops.) As a result, NG troops now get better benefits, especially when they are mobilized (and their families need health insurance and access to army family support services.) Another complaint, which is harder to deal with, is the fact that about a third of NG troops have not gone overseas, and may never do so, mainly because they have a job specialty that is just not needed over there. To help with that, the army has awarded more bonuses for those serving overseas, especially those who have done so a lot. This helps, and that can be seen by the fact that the army has been able to enlist, or re-enlist, enough people to maintain NG strength. But the army does surveys at the troops level, and know that the more often they mobilize people and send them over, the less likely they are to stay in.



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