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Recruitment problems will pass, National Guard chief says

WASHINGTON—The Army National Guard probably won't meet its recruiting goals for this year, but its top general said Tuesday that he expected the situation to turn around in the next 18 months.

Most Guard recruiting is done by word of mouth, and when soldiers return from Iraq they will tell others how important it is to serve their country, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Tuesday. He couldn't predict whether the Guard would meet its goal in the future, but he was confident that it could "close the gap."

Other military services also appeal to patriotism in recruiting, but during wartime the National Guard offers an additional incentive of "going with your hometown team," Blum said. "You train with that team. You deploy with that team, and there's a sense of bonding there, there's a sense of cohesion there that no other force brings to the plate ... and that's quite powerful."

The Pentagon announced Monday that the Army National Guard had fallen short of its recruiting goals in June for the ninth straight month and was down nearly 25 percent for the year.

Blum said the reserve force was at about 330,000, or more than 94 percent of its authorized strength of 350,000, and that re-enlistment rates had hit an all-time high.

"It's not a case where we're in serious crisis mode," Blum said at a breakfast meeting. The Army Guard had been able to perform its missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, at home and elsewhere, he said.

"Do I need them? Yeah, I need them," he said. "Can we operate without them? Yes, we are."

Deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained U.S. ground forces tremendously, especially the Army, which is down nearly 8,000 recruits for the year, according to figures released Monday. But the Army National Guard has been hit the worst of all the active and part-time services, seeing recruiting shortfalls for all but one of the past 18 months.

Currently, Army National Guardsmen make up about 40 percent of the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. When eight Guard brigades are deployed by the end of July, the National Guard will make up almost 50 percent of the Army's combat forces in Iraq, National Guard spokesman Mark Allen said. That figure will represent the "high-water mark" of the Guard's commitment to the Iraq war, Blum said.

Blum said the Army National Guard's most experienced soldiers are re-enlisting at unprecedented rates. The figure the Pentagon posted for June was nearly 106 percent of the re-enlistment target goal for the month.

"We're doing pretty damn good when you consider that we've been at war for three and a half years," Blum said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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