Soldiers are leaving the Army National Guard at a faster rate than enlisting. These dipping numbers fuel concerns that shortly units across the U.S. may not meet military requirements for overseas deployments or other needed services.
Some states rely heavily on their Guard members for a wide range of missions which means that the falling number of enlisted will mean the states will fall short of their troop totals as soon as this year. Other states may fare better, but the Guard losses come as fires in the West, an active hurricane season, and the continuing demand for overseas units, including training missions in Europe for countries feeling threatened by Russia and combat tours in Syria
According to military officials, the number of Guard soldiers leaving or retiring from the Guard each month over the past year has far exceeded those joining. The total annual loss is currently around 7,500 service members. The issue, many say, is due to a combination of shortfalls in recruiting along with an increase in the number of soldiers opting not to reenlist when their tour is over.
The Guard losses reflect a more significant personnel predicament across America’s military as all of the armed service branches struggled this year to meet recruiting goals. The losses also underscore the need to change how the military recruits and then retains airmen and soldiers who must juggle military duties with regular full-time jobs and family commitments.
According to Major General Rich Baldwin, chief-of-staff of the Army National Guard, the current staffing issues are the worst he’s seen in 20 years. Still, he says so far, the impact on the readiness of the Guard is “minimal and manageable.”
“However, if we don’t solve the recruiting and retention challenges we’re currently facing, we will see readiness issues related to strength begin to emerge within our units within the next year or two,” said Baldwin.
General Daniel Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau, said the Air and Army Guards failed to meet their goals for the total number of service members in the recently-ended fiscal year. The Air Guard’s authorized total is 108,300, and the Army Guard’s is 336,000.
According to Major General Baldwin, the Army Guard began the year with a bit more than its target total but ended the fiscal year about 2% below the goal. Fueling the Army Guard’s decline was a 10% shortfall in reenlistments. The Air Guard missed its total goal by almost 3%, said Hokanson.
Varied reasons for Guard losses — no easy solutions
The reasons for Guard losses are varied. However, Guard officials say that young people may not feel the strong call to service as was seen in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. In 2020 and 2021, members of the Guard were heavily called on for various emergencies, including natural disasters, domestic crises like civil unrest, and the pandemic. They provided Covid-19 vaccines and testing as well as medical care.
“Today, we have a much lower overseas deployment tempo than we’ve been used to, and almost all of the Covid support missions have been ramped down,” said Baldwin. “We join to make a difference by serving others and by being part of something bigger than ourselves. There may be a perception among both our soldiers and the civilians we are trying to recruit that we are on the backside of all of that, and it’s time to take advantage of the hot job market we have right now.”
While the shortfalls for 2022 are minor, the Guard may face growing losses over the next year due to the requirement by the U.S. military that all troops receive the Covid-19 vaccine. Currently, around 9,000 members of the Guard are refusing to get the shot, with an additional 5,000 seeking medical, administrative, or religious exemptions.
No Guard members have been discharged for refusing the order yet, as the National Guard waits on final instructions from the Army on how to proceed. It is unclear when the guidance will come.
With more losses looming, Guard leaders are looking for additional ways to entice service members to reenlist and potential service members to join. According to Hokanson, one critical change would be to provide healthcare coverage for Guard members.
Presently, about 60,000 members of the Guard don’t have health insurance. Additionally, many who have insurance through their employer face a complicated process to switch onto the military’s TRICARE program when their status changes to active duty. Hokanson said that providing health care insurance to Guard members currently uncovered would cost about $719 million annually.
Hokanson also mentioned other changes that could help, including giving Guard members a financial bonus when they bring in recruits and expanding educational benefits. Similar benefits were used during the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“We need to make adjustments based on the current environment because for the long term. Our nation needs a National Guard the size that we are, or maybe even larger, to meet all the requirements that we have,” Hokanson said. “It’s up to us to make sure that we fill our formations so that they’re ready when our nation needs us.”