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Connecticut National Guard searching for new members

Connecticut's promotional flyer for the National Guard advertises free tuition.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Connecticut's promotional flyer for the National Guard advertises free tuition.

State officials have launched a program to increase the number of people signing on to join the National Guard after a nearly 50-year low in recruitment efforts last year.

Connecticut recently became the third state in the country — alongside Virginia and Vermont — to introduce the Joint Enlistment Enhancement Program, or JEEP, an initiative that will award $500 to active and retired members of the Connecticut National Guard who successfully recruit new members.

The nation has seen decreases in military recruitment across all branches, but last year was the worst the state has seen for its National Guard, said Lt. Col. Giancarlo D’Angelo of the Connecticut National Guard.

“The numbers have gone down the last couple of years,” D’Angelo said. “Last year, 2022, there was a drastic drop off of enlistments in Connecticut — 2022 was the worst year since 1973 since the military went on to an all-volunteer force. So, in about 50 years, last year was the worst year we’ve ever had.” 

“It is getting a little better this year,” he said. “We’re still kind of not where we were pre-COVID. We actually did pretty well in ’20 and ’21 during COVID, but there seems to be a COVID hangover in ’22.”

D’Angelo said Connecticut’s local military saw a 30% drop off last year from the average 1,800 to 1,900 new recruits across all branches. However, they are now on pace to surpass last year’s numbers, having already recruited over 1,000 enlistees this year into the service, he added.

The U.S. Army Recruiting Command reported that 71% of youths are unqualified for enlistment because of issues related to obesity, drug use, physical and mental problems, behavioral misconduct, and aptitude.

The agency has also reported that 50% of young people in the U.S. know “little to nothing about military service” and only 1% of the population currently serves in the military, a figure that is exacerbated by a declining veteran population.

Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Leonardi said because of the effects of learning loss and school absences during the pandemic, many of the new recruits fail to pass the standardized Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery entrance exam needed to enter into service. New recruits need to score in the 31st percentile to pass.

She also said COVID vaccine mandates and changes in the medical screening process for new members, from a traditional doctor’s check to a software-based system, were other factors in the recent decline in numbers.

“We have the MHS Genesis System now where we actually have to give our applicants Social Security numbers, and that populates all their visits to emergency rooms, any type of doctor visits, anything like that,” she said.

MHS Genesis is a medical record sharing and integration software, where an enlistee’s entire medical history is placed onto a centralized platform for military use. The issue with this, however, is that if an enlistee had any pre-existing medical conditions that they no longer receive treatment for, that pre-existing condition will still appear in the system.

“That is disqualifying a lot of our applicants who are otherwise healthy, and it elongates the process. Not saying we can’t get them in, but a lot of people require waivers, and that just pushes things along months,” Leonardi said.

“The medical screening process has gotten more stringent over the last few years,” D’Angelo added.

Aside from the new JEEP program, the Connecticut National Guard is also using other measures to increase its numbers, by implementing programs that relax aptitude and physical requirements for new recruits while providing training for them to excel in these areas.

The National Guard also engages in social media, television advertising and community outreach events, in which they visit local high schools and colleges to encourage students to join.

“The truth is, a lot of people just don’t realize the difference between the National Guard and the reserves, and we are very, very different,” Leonardi said.

The National Guard is much like the Army but has greater obligations to the state as opposed to the federal U.S. Army and Army reserves, D’Angelo noted.

“The biggest thing is really a state mission,” he said. “We do a lot of things to help the state out, and even other states. North Carolina could have a hurricane, and we’ll send the contingents out in North Carolina to help out in support.”

D’Angelo said despite the recent trends in recruiting, the Connecticut National Guard has still been able to carry out its duties effectively because of its high retention rates.

“People that are in are staying in. We’re literally No. 1 in the country in the last 12 months with our retention rate, so people want to stay — people that are in are happy, they want to stay, and they want to serve.”

Leonardi said she encourages prospective recruits to give the National Guard a chance, or at least a look.

“I think that the best bet is to look at all avenues, all of their options, and at least consider it even if you’re somebody who never saw yourself in the military. I think a lot more people would be open to it if they considered it more and looked more into the benefits that it provides,” such as school tuition payments, payments for training and schooling, health insurance, and tax waivers, among other benefits, she said.

Brandon Reid, who works as a security guard at a CVS in Hartford, could be the kind of young man the National Guard is looking for. But he does not see that kind of service in his future, especially considering how he believes veterans are treated.

“There’s plenty of veterans that come home … but they don’t get the proper necessities that they need. A lot of them are homeless and stuff like that, so I feel like it might not be worth it.”

According to data from the National Association of American Veterans, over 40,000 former servicemen are homeless.

But Leonardi and D’Angelo said services have improved in recent years for veterans who are struggling to find resources.

“I will say that the V. A, Veterans Affairs, for those people who are homeless right now from maybe the Vietnam Era….the benefits they had were not so good back then and the homelessness were as a result of that,” Leonardi said. “But the VA has come a long way, much like medicine has come a long way.

“There is so much more support that soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines, all have now with the VA upgrade system,” she added.

“The homelessness, it’s terrible. But it has dropped significantly in the last two to three years,” D’Angelo said. “It’s terrible. It shouldn’t exist, but the percentage of people outside of the military that are homeless is probably much higher than veterans.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.