The National Guard is going to be about 9,000 troops short on its end-strength goal for the year, the chief of the National Guard Bureau told reporters Tuesday, citing one of the organization’s toughest recruiting environments in recent memory.

That mirrors challenges seen in the Air Force and Army overall this year, as the services struggle to balance recruiting and retention across their active duty and reserve components.

“[Recruiters] have told me pretty much unanimously, in every location I go to, just how difficult the current recruiting challenges are that they’re facing,” Army Gen. Dan Hokanson said. “For many of them, it’s unprecedented in their time as a recruiter.”

Like the active duty side, leaders point to low unemployment and a shrinking pool of potential recruits, due to high physical fitness and behavioral standards, as well as a drop in interest in serving.

The Guard is exploring a few ways to change that up. Chief among them, offering free health insurance to all of their members, mirroring active duty medical benefits.

Hokanson has been making that case to lawmakers this year, arguing that 60,000 uninsured Guardsmen is a readiness issue. It may also be a recruiting issue.

“We really need to make sure that they’re medically healthy and ready, and if they’re injured, they’ve gotten that treated, so that they can really respond when we ask them to,” Hokanson said. “And so when we look at potential folks who are coming to the National Guard, sometimes that’s less appealing if healthcare is not part of, you know, their decision.”

Hokanson estimates that if the Guard extends insurance benefits to all troops who don’t have them through their civilian employer, it will cost about $719 million a year, or $12,000 per service member.

Other initiatives include helping potential recruits who are already interested in military service clear any hurdles. For instance, Tennessee has their Recruit Sustainment Program, to help prospects get in shape.

Through the program, Tennessee can bring in recruits who don’t meet height-weight standards, and give them a chance to lose weight with Guard resources.

That is “allowing us, say, two weeks initially, to kind of get them educated, get them in a routine and then look and see if we can we can allow them to kind of transform their bodies and eating habits just through education,” Army Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee’s adjutant general, told reporters.

One weekend a month

Military senior leaders have long cited competition with the private sector and a small recruiting pool as challenges for much of the last decade, but they have few answers about why these problems came to a head over the last couple of years.

“So the question is, why are people now changing their mind?” Anson Smith, deputy chief of the Army National Guard’s Strength Maintenance Division, told reporters. “Well, we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Leaders pushed back on the idea that the changing nature of Guard service could be having an effect on recruiting and retention, though the Guard’s reputation as a part-time force has changed dramatically.

What used to be a “one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year” commitment turned into multiple combat deployments throughout the Global War on Terror.

And in recent years, Guard troops have been called up more and more frequently to perform disaster relief, COVID-19 response and vaccination, and to back up Customs and Border Protection, in addition to stints teaching school, driving buses and more.

While some of these mobilizations have been under federal authorities, allowing troops to earn active duty pay and accrue education and retirement benefits, many have been under state authority, with different compensation.

“Obviously, when they’re in a state active duty status, if the state needs help, we will always augment them in any way that we can,” Hokanson said. “But at the end of the day, since they’re under the command and control of the governor, being paid by the state, and fall under those protections, we really are just there to help them to do that.”

Generally, Holmes said, Guardsmen want to mobilize, and may even be discouraged from continuing service if they don’t.

“I think it’s up to us as leaders to check their [personnel] tempo, and ensure that we’re not driving them in the ground,” Holmes said. “We have controls of that, you know, we can gauge the number of days that they do a year.”

“Our soldiers and airmen are proud to do more than one-weekend-a-month,” he added. “And I guarantee you, if we don’t use them, they will go find something else to do.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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