It wasn’t difficult for Sgt. Brian Boss to recruit for the Missouri National Guard — until the first bombs fell on Baghdad last March.
He first noticed a change during his monthly visits to Columbia high schools, where he would set up a display table in the lunchroom to attract new recruits.
“It used to be even if they weren’t interested, they used to come and at least talk about it,” he said. “They’d take a pen or something. Now, it’s very rare to get someone to even come up and talk to you.”
Boss said he usually recruits about 60 new guardsmen a year, but he’s doubtful he’ll meet that number this year.
Of those he did sign up, close to half were former members of other services, rather than first-time military recruits. He sees a number of reasons for the shift. Anti-war sentiment in Columbia is one part of the story, he said. Another was the realization — perhaps a shock to some — that, in the event of war, National Guardsmen are an integral part of the nation’s armed forces.
“The majority of them, lately, one of the first questions is, ‘What are my chances of getting deployed?’” Boss said. “We have no way of getting them an answer to that.”
Much of the burden of the war in Iraq has fallen on the shoulders of the National Guard, a largely part-time armed force. In fact, the war led to the biggest mobilization of the Guard since Korea, Guard spokesman Reginald Saville said. The call to active duty may have had some effect on the National Guard’s recruitment efforts, Saville said, particularly among high school students whose parents feel a little more apprehensive about signing consent forms.
Nationwide, the Guard’s recruitment has experienced a drop in the last year, Saville said. According to the most recent numbers, from October through December 2003, the National Guard’s total force was at 345,000 — about 5,000 less than the federally mandated strength.
A total of about 214,000 National Guardsmen of both the Army and Air divisions were put on active duty as part of the war effort, Saville said. And the number of guardsmen called to the region to help with peacekeeping efforts is still on the rise. Of the roughly 120,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, about 26,000 are members of the Army National Guard. That number is expected to increase to 34,000 in coming months, Saville said.
In Missouri, 5,000 guardsmen have been deployed since Sept. 11, 2001,
according to Missouri National Guard spokesman Lt. Jamie Melchert. Of those, 3,750 are still deployed, he said, with 1,500 to 1,600 in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding regions, serving mainly as military police.
Although community support has been strong for guardsmen overseas, recruiting operations manager Sgt. Maj. Richard Grant said it’s obvious that “the public in general is looking at the Guard in a slightly different light since we have had these recent mobilizations.”
Of potential recruits, he said: “It may not fit into their career plans as much as it has been in the past.”
Last year’s war in Iraq was the first time National Guard units in Columbia had been called to active duty since World War II, said recruiting operations Sgt. Maj. Richard Grant. Now that people can no longer be “99 percent certain” that joining the National Guard doesn’t mean going into combat, perceptions of the National Guard have changed, according to Grant.
Sgt. Roberta Howell, 24, of Hallsville saw some of those attitude changes among fellow guardsmen while serving as an MP in Iraq. “Sometimes, whenever we’d be somewhere and everyone’s all complaining, it’s like look, you signed the dotted line,” she said.
Now that she’s returned, Howell helps with recruitment efforts by calling high school students. She said she gets a sense, both while trying to recruit and out in public, that people are less interested in participating in the National Guard.
“They don’t mind if someone else does it, but they don’t want anyone in their family to do it,” she said.
Shelly Greeves of Monroe City said her husband, a 21-year veteran of the Guard who also served in the Army in Vietnam, understood that by joining the Guard he made a commitment to serve the country during times of war.
When the Iraqi war broke out, Greeves said she didn’t worry for him. Though she says she’s always understood “there’s always that possibility,” she just didn’t expect he would be called up.
“With him being National Guard, I thought they’ll pull full-time people before they’ll pull National Guard,” she said. “But I didn’t think about how much we lost in the full-time military.”
First Sgt. Harlan Greeves, 52, didn’t end up in Iraq, but the prospect hung over Shelly Greeves after he was called to Fort Leonard Wood in December. He’s now at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
As the mother of a Marine fighter pilot, Columbia resident Lynda Holzhauser said her son, Brian Foster of San Francisco, knew the dangers he might face when he joined the National Guard. It was hard for her while he was in Iraq last year, but she imagines things were harder for families of guardsmen who were caught by surprise when they were deployed.
“Basically, he’s probably not married and doesn’t have children because he does what he does and it’s a dangerous thing,” she said about her son.
Members of the National Guard, she said, “had a life and they go and serve their country and it’s totally disrupted. I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s not what they expected, I’m sure.”
Recruiting operations manager Sgt. Richard Grant said he doesn’t expect to see much change in the total number of people enlisted in the National Guard at the end of the fiscal year this September. Missouri’s Army division of the National Guard strives to maintain about 8,150 members. So far, there are a little more than 8,000, he said. As for the Missouri National Guard’s own member goals, Grant said recruitment was not the only factor in keeping numbers up.
“I feel fairly comfortable that we’re going to be there,” he said. “We may be several dozen short of that today, but that’s still six months away.”
Grant said he’s always tried to convey that being part of the National Guard means serving the country, even in war, which he thinks more new recruits are beginning to understand.
“I think people are going to weigh their options a little more heavily,” Grant said, “and I’m sure that’s true with all the branches of service.”