Southeast bucks National Guard recruiting trend

Former military personnel in region want to re-enlist

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004

Southeast Alaska may be bucking a national downward trend in Army National Guard enlistments.

The Army National Guard nationally has fallen short in its recruiting goals, partly because potential enlistees know they could go to war, the Guard's top general said this month.

Fewer active-duty soldiers are transferring to the Guard when they leave the service, Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told the media in mid-December.

But in Southeast Alaska, when the Army National Guard was activated for the Iraq war in September, recruiters began to hear from many people with prior military service, Sgt. 1st Class Paul D. Kerr said.

"I heard the word about the unit here being called up for mobilization," said Michael Phelps, 43, of Juneau, who enlisted in October. "I jumped on the phone and said I wanted to go."

About 130 Alaska Army National Guard soldiers, including 70 from Southeast, are slated to go to Iraq early in 2005.

National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers now make up nearly 40 percent of the 148,000 American troops in Iraq. At least 114 National Guard soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, The Associated Press reported.

Kerr, one of two Army National Guard recruiters in Southeast Alaska, said he has received many calls from people with prior military service who want to deploy to Iraq. He still gets 10 or more calls a week from former soldiers, including one from a man 62 years old who served in Vietnam.

Since the fall, the Guard in Southeast has recruited about six people with prior military service, in addition to about 10 people who are first-timers, Kerr said.

Sgt. Phelps first joined the Guard as a high school student in North Carolina. After moving to Juneau as a young man, he served in the Guard here until 1990.

He was a part-time soldier, working in civilian life on farms in the East, or in restaurants and for the U.S. Forest Service in Juneau.

"The National Guard's my family," Phelps said. "I've got guys here in this particular unit that's shipping out I served with for eight to 10 years. They're like my brothers. I belong with them. I want to be able to go out and do my part."

Phelps is not part of the current deployment. Individual soldiers don't get to decide whether they will go to Iraq, but the first step is getting into the military.

The Guard nationally fell about 5,000 people short of its recruitment goal of 56,000 enlistees in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Blum said. At full strength, the Guard has 350,000 soldiers.

That fiscal year, recruiters in Southeast Alaska garnered about five fewer recruits than their goal of 48, Kerr said.

The Guard is now offering enlistment bonuses of up to $15,000 for soldiers with prior military service who enlist for six years. Other bonuses were increased as well.

Phelps, who enlisted for one year but plans to stay in for many years, enlisted before the new bonuses. He said he wanted to serve in Iraq and in Alaska as needed. He talked with his wife and 15-year-old son for several weeks about whether he should enlist during a war.

He now performs maintenance work for the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. If he was called to Iraq, his pay would equal or better his current pay, he said. But of course the issues were more than money. His family supported his enlistment, Phelps said.

"They're very, very proud of me. They 100 percent support me. They're not overly thrilled at the fact that I might have to go out and face combat, but they support me 100 percent," he said.

Phelps said the training has changed since he was in the Guard before. It now includes training at Fort Richardson in Anchorage in how to fight wars in cities.

"The battlefield's changed now to a more urban environment, and the weapons have changed for the better," he said.

Many of the people with prior military experience who ask about enlisting in the Guard won't be selected, Kerr said. It depends on various factors, such as age and their skills. But he said anyone interested in enlisting should call a recruiter.

• Eric Fry can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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