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National Guard leaders consider finders' fees to boost recruitment

Staff Sgt. Brian Merritt speaks with a prospective applicant May 4, 2015, at the Virginia Army National Guard Recruiting Station in Newport News, VA.
U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki
Staff Sgt. Brian Merritt speaks with a prospective applicant May 4, 2015, at the Virginia Army National Guard Recruiting Station in Newport News.

To attract more recruits into the National Guard, about a half dozen states around the country are trying a new version of a now-defunct national program: paying finders’ fees to people who bring in new troops.

The National Guard came up 9,000 troops short of its recruitment goal last fiscal year. More than half the states missed their goals by 40% or more according to the National Guard Bureau, the federal office that oversees the state guards.

To bridge the gap, some states have resorted to paying out referral bonuses to non-recruiters.

“It amounts to a $1,000 payment if a ‘recruiting assistant’ as they're called, enlists anybody into the Guard…from the connection all the way up to initial entry training,” explained Capt. Mikel Arcovich about how the program works in Vermont.

The “recruiting assistants” are not full-time recruiters, but they do have to be affiliated with the Vermont National Guard. Active or retired troops can bring in leads, and so can the Guard’s civilian employees.

“We have vacancies to fill, and having everybody contribute, or at least having a program that offers incentives for everybody to contribute, is value added,” Arcovich said.

He said so far, the program has brought in 69 leads and paid out more than $50,000 in bonuses.

The Virginia National Guard has a similar bonus referral program, except any Virginian can get a finder’s fee up to $750, whether they’re a member of the Guard or not.

Lt. Col. Scott Nivens commands the Virginia National Guard recruiting and retention battalion.

He said six people have signed up to refer recruits since the program launched in September, and they’ve generated a handful of leads so far.

“It’s a nice paycheck for referring someone to our organization,” Nivens said. “We’re looking forward to more success as we go forward.”

A federal-level finders’ fee program used to exist. It was called the Guard-Recruiting Assistance Program, or G-RAP, and it brought in 130,000 new recruits from 2005 through 2012. The Guard really needed soldiers then — for the war in Iraq, and for the massive stateside mobilization in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the Pentagon shut it down after an investigation revealed millions of dollars in fraudulent payments, although some of those who were accused of abusing the program deny any wrongdoing.

Despite the program’s troubled past, senior leaders said they might bring it back.

“By putting the right checks and balances in place, we could really help make every single Guardsman a recruiter, by paying them a bonus for anybody that they bring into the organization,” said Gen. Daniel Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau.

At a roundtable discussion in September, Hokanson said a reboot would require careful planning to eliminate any opportunity for fraud, but that at the end of the day, the program had been a success.

“Obviously, there were lessons learned that we would definitely want to incorporate,” Hokanson said. “We want to basically have a firm set of rules and orders and really set the terms and conditions.”

The Vermont and Virginia Guards said their programs protect against fraud in part because they operate on a much smaller scale with localized oversight.

“The recruiter is a check and balance, the recruiting battalion has a checks and balance, and the payments are run through the Vermont military department,” Arcovich said about the Vermont National Guard program.

And Nivens said the Virginia program has multiple layers of oversight baked in. First, the vendor — the person who wants to refer a potential recruit — gets approved by the state, then they can submit a lead, which gets routed to a National Guard recruiter.

“From there, the recruiter contacts the vendor and the applicant to meet in person to determine the applicant’s initial eligibility, and potentially to begin the application process,” Nivens said.

So far, senior National Guard leaders have not yet laid out any formal plans to roll out a new federal referral bonus program.

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.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.