National Guard enlistment: Troops leaving faster in 2022

With more casualties likely on the horizon, the leaders of the Guard look for ways to get the service members to join or re-enlist.

WASHINGTON — Soldiers are exiting the Army National Guard faster than they are entering, raising concerns that units across the country may fail to meet military requirements for overseas and other deployments in the years to come.

For individual states that rely on their Guard members for a wide range of missions, this means that some may fall short of their troop levels this year, while others may fare better. But the losses come as many face an active hurricane season, wildfires in the west and continued demand for units overseas, including combat operations in Syria and training missions in Europe for nations worried about threats from Russia.

According to officials, the number of soldiers retiring or leaving the guard every month for the past year has exceeded the number of newcomers, bringing the total annual loss to about 7,500 soldiers. The problem is a combination of recruitment shortfalls and an increase in the number of soldiers choosing not to report back when their tour is over.

The casualties reflect a broader personnel hardship across the U.S. military as all forces struggled to meet recruiting goals this year. And they underscore the need for sweeping reforms in the way the military recruits and retains citizen-soldiers and airmen, who must balance their regular, full-time jobs with their military duties.

Maj. Gen. Rich Baldwin, Army National Guard chief of staff, said current manpower issues are the worst he’s seen in 20 years, but so far the impact on guard readiness has been “minimal and manageable.”

“However, if we don’t solve the recruitment and retention challenges we’re currently facing, we’re going to have strength-related readiness issues in our units within the next year or two,” he said.

Both the Army and Air Guards fell short of their targets for total service members in the fiscal year that ended last Friday, according to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. The Army Guard’s authorized total is 336,000 and the Air Guard’s is 108,300.

Baldwin said the Army Guard started the year slightly above target total but ended the fiscal year about 2% below target. That drop was fueled by a 10 percent fall in the number of current soldiers choosing to reenlist. Hokanson said the Air Guard missed its overall target by almost 3%.

The reasons are varied. But Guard officials point out that young people may not be hearing the strong call to service they did when the US was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Baldwin said that as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan began to taper off a few years ago, the states began seeing higher-than-expected personnel losses. In exit interviews, he said, troops gave a variety of reasons for not rehiring. “But unexpectedly they found that one reason many of their soldiers had in common was based on a perception that the war was over,” Baldwin said, adding that they had joined to serve their country, and not to make the Army Guard her career.

The same could be true now, he said. Throughout 2020 and 2021, members of the Guard have been heavily involved in a range of domestic emergencies, from natural disasters and civil unrest to the pandemic, including medical supplies, COVID-19 testing and vaccines.

“Today we have a much slower pace of operations overseas than we were used to and almost all COVID support missions have been shut down,” Baldwin said. “We band together to make a difference by serving others and being part of something bigger than ourselves. … There may be a perception, both among our soldiers and the civilians we try to recruit, that we stand behind all of this and it is time to take advantage of the hot job market we have right now.”

While deficits for 2022 may be small percentages, the Guard faces mounting losses next year as the US military requires all troops to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, about 9,000 members of the Guard are refusing injections, and another 5,000 have requested religious, medical or administrative exemptions.

So far, no member of the Guard has been fired for refusing the vaccination order. The National Guard is awaiting final instructions from the Army on how to proceed. Officials have said it’s not clear when they will receive that guidance.

With more casualties likely on the horizon, the leaders of the Guard look for ways to get the service members to join or re-enlist. Hokanson said a key change would be to offer Guard members health insurance. Around 60,000 guards are currently not insured. And those insured through their civilian employer must go through a difficult process to transition to the military’s TRICARE program while on active duty.

The cost of providing health care to those who don’t have it would be about $719 million a year, he said.

Other changes that could help would include expanding educational benefits and giving members of the Guard a financial bonus when hiring new recruits. Such bonuses were used during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there were some problems that Hokanson and others said could now be avoided.

“We need to make adjustments based on the current environment because, over the long term, our nation needs a National Guard the size that we have, and maybe even larger, to meet any needs that we have,” Hokanson said. “It’s up to us to make sure we fill our formations so they’re ready when our nation needs us.”

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Laura Coffey

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