Iraq vets getting out of Guard
By HARRY ESTEVE
SALEM — Oregon Army National Guard soldiers who served in Iraq are opting to leave the military at a rate significantly higher than normal, according to preliminary numbers released to The Oregonian.
Fewer than half — between 180 and 190 — of the Iraq veterans in the Oregon Guard’s 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, which came home in April, decided to re-enlist. Typically, Guard retention rates hover around 80 percent.
“That’s a huge hit,” said Col. Mike Caldwell, public affairs director for the Oregon Guard, who got a first look at the numbers last week. Since September of 2004, 49 percent of eligible 1st Battalion soldiers have said they would sign up again.
Caldwell attributed the reluctance to the high probability and length of future deployments, which can wreak havoc on the family life and careers of citizen soldiers.
“We need to get deployment lengths down,” he said.
Although the number of soldiers involved is too small to call the retention numbers definitive, the results provide an early indication of the difficulty the Guard might have in maintaining its troop strength as more units are sent to war zones.
Perhaps the biggest test will come in the spring with the scheduled return of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry. The 700 Oregon soldiers in that unit have spent a difficult year in and around Baghdad, with eight killed and numerous injured.
“We believe we are going to have some issues with retention” among the 2nd Battalion soldiers, said Lt. Col. Leah Sundquist, who heads the Oregon Guard’s recruitment and retention office in Salem. She cautioned against treating the figures so far as a trend.
For example, the more than 400 soldiers of the Guard’s 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry, which spent six months on the Sinai Peninsula in late 2002 and early 2003, are re-enlisting at rates closer to the norm. But, as Caldwell noted, “They weren’t shot at.”
Family worries top the list of reasons for returnees deciding against extending their stay in the Guard, Sundquist said.
“Soldiers are saying, ‘I have four kids, and I knew we might possibly be looking at a deployment down the road, and I can’t afford it,’ ” she said.
Pay cuts and uncertain futures
Recruitment and retention have been issues for the military since the early months of the Iraq war as it became clear soldiers, Marines and airmen would be deployed in greater numbers and for longer periods of time than expected.
The concerns were more pronounced for reserve forces, such as the National Guard, where members have to leave families and jobs for extended periods when they are mobilized for active duty. Many take hefty cuts in pay, and some come back to uncertain job and lifestyle prospects.
So far, most of the concerns about retention have been based on anecdotal evidence and unscientific surveys of soldiers in the field.
The 1st battalion, 162nd Infantry figures, however, represent the first look at the impact on the Oregon Guard of an extended and relatively dangerous deployment in and around Iraq. The 400-member unit spent time in Kuwait and Iraq, although it saw significantly less combat than the 2nd Battalion there now.
Nationally, retention has averaged 82 percent, said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, public affairs officer for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. Whether that number falls as more units come back from extended combat duty in Iraq remains to be seen, he said.
“It’s really difficult to tell because some of the best retention has been in units that have come back,” Milord said. That’s partly due to intense feelings of camaraderie that can develop among soldiers who have faced difficult times, he said.
In search of recruits
“They experience a high level of emotion,” he said. “These are people whose lives are literally in each others’ hands. It’s like forming a new family.”
Sundquist said the Oregon Guard is taking steps to boost not just retention totals, but recruits as well. Ten new recruiters have been hired, for a total of 72, and they’re combing the state. One will be sent to Iraq to talk to 2nd Battalion soldiers before they return home.
The Oregon Guard usually brings in 1,000 new members each year, Caldwell said. He said he thinks the numbers could drop by 20 percent to 30 percent.
Sundquist, however, offered a more optimistic outlook. Recruitment totals for the past three months surpassed expectations, she said, and she thinks the Oregon Guard has a realistic shot at achieving the goal of 1,100 new recruits during its 2004-05 fiscal year, which ends in September. She said recent recruitment drives have been aided considerably by new Army signing bonuses of $6,000 to $15,000, depending on the status of the recruit, and by other perks, such as student loan payoffs.
Even so, she acknowledged recruiting and retention has gotten trickier with the Guard’s increasingly high profile in Iraq.
“Oregon is now going to have the highest number of soldiers wearing combat patches that we have had since World War II,” she said. “The retention issue has always been there, but now it’s more visible.”