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Falling Morale Hurts Guard Retention
Falling Morale Hurts Guard Retention


This article is provided courtesy of DefenseWatch, the official magazine for Soldiers For The Truth (SFTT), a grass-roots educational organization started by a small group of concerned veterans and citizens to inform the public, the Congress, and the media on the decline in readiness of our armed forces. Inspired by the outspoken idealism of retired Colonel David Hackworth, SFTT aims to give our service people, veterans, and retirees a clear voice with the media, Congress, the public and their services.

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November 24, 2004

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By Nathaniel R. Helms

Despite the U.S. Army's best efforts to hang on to its active duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers, recent trends suggest that a major retention crisis is looming, particularly in the reserve component.

In Missouri, considered both a stalwart center of patriotism and sure source of eager young National Guard troops, recruitment rates have fallen by 16 percent this year, according to MOARNG spokesperson 1st Lt. Tammy Spicer. Similar declines in recruitment numbers are evident in the Deep South and the rest of the Midwest, usually bastions of National Guard strength in both peace and war, said Mike Cline, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States in Washington, D.C.

Cline, a 26-year active Army and Guard veteran and a retired master sergeant, told DefenseWatch that declines in both recruitment and retention are particularly apparent in the Northeast and Western states, especially New York, New Jersey, California, Washington and Oregon.

"They're saying enough is enough, I didn't join the Guard to be on active duty," Cline observed. "About 95 percent of complaints we are getting here is from a family member left behind. The caregiver is gone. Who is going to fix the washing machine, the lawn mower? There is a reduction in income and then there are problems."

Spicer countered with Guard numbers that show Missouri not only made its DoD-mandated troop strength for the last fiscal year, but surpassed it by 27 soldiers. However, others, including military historian Donald Heidenreich, Ph.D., a college professor and retired ANG major, questioned whether Missouri's ability to maintain its troop strength at slightly above mandated minimums is truly a bright indicator. The patriotic surge of martial enthusiasm that initially swelled National Guard roles in the wake of 9/11 has flattened. The reality of a long slog in the war in Iraq has dampened enthusiasm for donning the Army's uniform, several recent surveys show.

The downward trend officially came to light in a voluntary survey conducted by the Department of Defense last spring, which used a variety of measures to determine where Army recruitment and retention are heading. If the trends observed in the May study continue, the Army may soon find itself without the necessary manpower to fulfill its mission in Iraq without resorting to drastic measures like the involuntary draft - a notion the Bush administration has insisted is not in the cards.

The biggest problem revealed in the study is retention. In May 2004, 66 percent of reserve component members indicated a desire to stay in the National Guard and Reserves, down 7 percentage points from May 2003; a decline led by Army National Guard (down 8 percentage points to 62 percent), and the Army Reserve (down 10 percentage points to 59 percent). Within the Regular Army 57 percent of service members indicated a desire to stay - down 4 percentage points from March 2003; that category was led by Army members in pay grades E-5 through E-9 and O-4 through O-6.

The trend, however, is evident in all pay grade groups (down 5 to 8 percentage points) and particularly among Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) participants (down 13 percentage points to 54 percent).

Lt. Spicer, who recently returned from 14 months in Iraq after serving as a platoon leader in Missouri's 203rd Engineer Battalion, claims the decline in either enlistments or morale isn't occurring because the soldier's service is particularly rough in-country. Despite the daily reports of combat, most soldiers in Iraq have three hots and a cot, daily PX privileges, showers, unlimited communications through telephone exchanges and the Internet with folks back home, as well as a 15-day leave midway through their tour of duty, she explained.

"People join and stay for a variety of reasons," Spicer said. "Personal and family patriotism, a paycheck, school, and financial perks like tax-free income while serving in Iraq [keep them in]."

Spicer also said the 90-day "stop loss" policy in place in Missouri allowed cooler heads to prevail upon the soldier's return from Iraq and provided many of them the opportunity to reconsider the benefits of ANG service before deciding whether to stay or leave after returning home. Many opted to stay in the MOANG upon further reflection, she claims.

Moreover, she added, the Army has instituted a myriad of policies aimed at easing soldiers' and families concerns for family, financial and health care burdens that both regular Army and citizen-soldiers are experiencing by family member's deployments to the war zones. She identified "family readiness programs," strong employer support, and special recruiting and retention incentives as successful means that the military is using to counter sagging reenlistment and retention rates.

However, the study's participants do not fully support Spicer's optimistic conclusions. During the same period Spicer was serving in Iraq, soldiers were reporting that family members and significant others are growing disheartened and dissatisfied with their loved ones being away for what seems to be indeterminate amounts of time as the need for boots on the ground in Iraq continues.

Cline concurred. He said financial hardships, particularly among part-time soldiers who left lucrative jobs, is causing widespread financial hardship among families left behind.

According to the study, only 60 percent of spouses and significant others now support their loved one's sacrifice, down 15 percent from a year ago, and the trend is equally apparent in all other active and reserve branches and components, showing a decline of between 10 and 17 percent since May 2003. Similar numbers are reported among family members, civilian supervisors and employers, and even co-workers.

As early as last January, an "informal" Army National Guard study revealed cracks in the citizen soldier's morale. That report cited a National Guard Bureau survey of 5,000 volunteers from 15 states that indicated the number of Guard soldiers who choose to leave the military could jump to 20 to 22 percent a year among those who have served long overseas tours. At the end of 2003, the figure was only 16 percent.

At the same time, the American Forces Press Service on Jan. 23, 2004 quoted Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking as pooh-poohing the report. "First, this is a 'voluntary' survey," Stoneking said. "If you have a survey at a dining facility about the food, who is going to fill it out?" The Army spokesman did say the National Guard deserves some credit for conducting the survey and anticipating problems. "This gives them time to put together a program for recruiting and retention," Stoneking added.

In California, former Guard commander Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe said the California National Guard's long deployment cycle in Iraq and Afghanistan caught his units by surprise. Better prepared for earthquake relief and similar natural disasters, the aftermath of 9/11 was a tremendous shock, he said.

"The conditions there are just indescribable," King told reporters last year after returning from a fact-finding trip to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. "I've heard about them, I've read about them, but until you see it, you just cannot believe it."

The California National Guard has sent four military police units, four truck companies and a military intelligence battalion to Iraq. Besides those individual units, large elements of the San Diego-based 40th Infantry Division are also serving in Iraq.

The retention problems that Monroe worried about after his Guardsmen returned home from tours as long as 16-months have ripened to fruition.

A May 2004 study by Annabel R. Chang and Professor Michael Wadle of California State University ("California National Guard: Addressing Recruitment and Retention"), showed that long deployment times have adversely impacted both individual members and the entire Army National Guard in that state. The researchers concluded:

"Since the War on Terror began, the California National Guard has had many of its weaknesses magnified, such as issues of wage compensation, training, and equipment. As a result of these greater U.S. military commitments, California National Guard members are also faced with longer deployments and a less desirable operational tempo. All of these factors combined together have had a detrimental impact on the ability of the California National Guard to sustain necessary recruitment and retention numbers."

These "constant, recurring long deployments" have begun to take a toll on the attitudes of many of the troops towards their National Guard obligations, the two researchers determined.

One California Guardsman said in the study that "it's just like being on active duty . We've basically returned to active duty, and that's not what we're in for. It's too much to ask."

Monroe said that Guardsmen "have to think if they stay in [the Guard], how many times will they be mobilized? That's paramount on their minds, and that has never been paramount on their minds," told reporters after his fact-finding mission.

Cline said that a growing number of citizen-soldiers returning from long deployments are discovering they no longer have civilian jobs. Despite the protections offered by the Service Members Civil Relief Act (the updated version of the old Soldiers & Sailors Relief Act adopted during World War II), jobs that have been eliminated or outsourced leave former employers with no obligation to rehire those soldiers coming home.

"If their positions have been eliminated the employer has no obligation to rehire them," Cline confirmed.

Moreover, long deployments affect the citizen-soldier's ability to be promoted in his or her civilian job, and if this individual is out of circulation for a year or more from his or her civilian job, the Guard member will likely be passed up for promotions, the CSU study found.

"Before 9/11 and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deployments were for at most six months and often accommodated for the schedule of the individual," the researchers said. "The traditional schedule of a Guard member allowed much more flexibility for a citizen soldier, but now deployments have become both unpredictable and extensive - both strong deterrents in re-enlisting or enlisting in the Guard."

Unfortunately for the country, the California study appears to be an accurate benchmark for the nation as a whole. The current policies, once dubbed "the back-door draft" by former presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, are causing many citizen-soldiers to vote with their feet, and the direction they are taking is not on the path to the recruiter's door.

(Editor's Note: Three recent surveys on Army personnel morale are currently posted at SFTT.org, and can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted word here.)

Guest Contributor Nathaniel R. "Nat" Helms is a Vietnam veteran, newspaper, television and radio reporter and combat correspondent living in Missouri. He is the author of two books, Numba One - Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker's Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at www.ebooks-online.com. He can be reached at natshouse1@charter.net. Send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com. >2004 DefenseWatch. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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