After a slow recruiting year, states are trying new ways to attract troops to the National Guard
This holiday season, the 42nd infantry division of the New York Army National Guard took its concert band on the road, performing holiday classics at community centers across the state.
The performances are part outreach and part recruiting, placing National Guard members front and center in the communities they serve.
“We're really excited about this partnership,” said flautist and Staff Sgt. Pamela Pfiel as the band visited the Warrior Ranch on Long Island, where veterans and civilians train rescued horses.
“The band is a very forward-facing unit,” Pfiel said. “We kind of look at ourselves as musical ambassadors to our communities, and we bridge that gap between the military and our civilian population.”
In part because of outreach like this, New York was the only state in the country to meet its recruitment goal for the Army National Guard this year. Thirty-one states fell short of their Army recruiting goals by over 40%, and the Guard as a whole missed their target by 9,000 troops, according to the National Guard Bureau, the federal office that oversees the state Guards.
New York has bucked the trend in part because it treats every event like a recruiting opportunity, according to Lt. Col. Josh Heimroth, who handles recruitment and retention for the New York Guard.
“There's not one way of doing business,” Heimroth said. “You’ve got to have multiple lines in the pond to catch the fish.”
Heimroth said recruitment is the top priority after soldier safety. That means large scale efforts like job fairs and social media outreach, but it also means supporting recruiters in the field with small things that sometimes get overlooked.
“That could be as little as making sure their computer’s up and running, they have a fuel card and a vehicle that can get them to and from their appointments.”
At a roundtable discussion in September, National Guard leaders said recruiters have had a tough year.
“They have told me pretty much in every location I go, just how difficult the current recruiting challenges are that they're facing,” said General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “For many of them, it's unprecedented in their time as a recruiter.”
Hokanson said competition from other industries and universities, a national labor shortage, and strict physical requirements can be barriers to finding eligible recruits. He’s pushing for major reforms to recruit new troops, and keep the ones who are already serving — starting with year-round, government-financed health care.
“When we look at recruiting and retention, really the most important aspect of that — the ability to be ready whenever we're needed — health care is absolutely critical to making that happen,” Hokanson said.
Out of about 440,000 guardsmen serving today, Hokanson said 60,000 don’t have health insurance at all. But year-round health benefits would be expensive — over $700 million by Hokanson’s estimate — and Congress would have to authorize it.
Meanwhile, some states have undertaken their own initiatives to attract recruits, including expanding education benefits and paying finders’ fees to current guardsmen who bring in new troops.
Tennessee is among several states that have established programs to help recruits pass entrance exams.
“We've partnered with our state institutions and colleges, and so they're providing courses that you can go and take,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, adjutant general of the Tennessee Guard. “It helps that student learn to test again, and it kind of fills that gap.”
Holmes said Tennessee also offers health and exercise training for potential recruits who don’t meet height and weight requirements.
“There are certain things — red lines — that I would say that we cannot really sacrifice on the military side,” Holmes said. “However, we do have to recognize what society is providing us.”
Staff Sgt. Pamela Pfiel, the flute player with the New York Army National Guard, said any time the band plays for the public, it’s an opportunity to talk up the benefits of National Guard service.
“We only get together one weekend a month, two weeks a year," Pfiel said. “The rest of the time, we are civilians out in this community so everything we do, we know can potentially bring people into our ranks.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.