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No shortage of recruits

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Meeting students
National Guard Sgt. Acie Matthews meets with potential recruit Patrick DeGuzman at the armory in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Monday, Feb. 1, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

You might think that with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finding people to enlist in the National Guard would be difficult.  

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, combat deployments have become standard with Minnesota National Guard service. But the prospect of going to war is not driving people away. 

"Actually the inverse is true," said Lt. Col. Jake Kulzer, who  oversees Minnesota National Guard recruiting.

Kulzer said no one joins the Guard anymore without knowing they are going to be deployed. 

"This idea that I'm joining the Guard to get the college benefits, but I never intended to deploy -- no one thinks that today," Kulzer said.

Kulzer said  there has been  so much interest in joining the Minnesota National Guard that, as recently as last summer, there was a waiting list for potential recruits. 

He attributed the Guard's success to a combination of patriotism,  the weak job market and the good reputation of the Minnesota National Guard. 

A lot has changed recently. A couple of years ago signing bonuses of $20,000 were routinely added on to the substantial  college benefits.  Not today.

"Because of the success we've had, and the waiting list that we unfortunately had over the summer, we don't need everybody," Kulzer said. "We can't take everybody."

Guard officials said only about one in four potential recruits meet the physical, academic and "moral" standards to enlist. 

TROLLING FOR NEW RECRUITS

Guard recruiters like Staff Sgt. Josh Meisberger, 28, are on the front lines of the effort to bring in new soldiers.

Meisberger was out recently at the Burnsville Center shopping mall looking for potential new recruits. He was dressed in green camouflage fatigues and Army boots. 

Sgt. Acie Matthews
National Guard Sgt. Acie Matthews talks with a potential recruit at the armory in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Monday, Feb. 1, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"You've got to case the joint," Meisberger said.  "Because if you walk into a mall and it's all senior citizens, it's not worth your time to  look for that one person that might be in here."

When the right people are at the mall, Meisberger said approaching them is a delicate balancing act. Sometimes he picks out kids who seem interested, and sometimes they approach him. 

That day it looked like fairly slim pickings for Meisberger.

"I see a lot of Moms," he said. 

Meisberger decided to take a different tact.  He headed into a store that sells caps and approached the young man working there. 

"What's your story?" Meisberger asked.  

"What's my story? Working and going to school," the young man replied. 

The young man was very accommodating to Meisberger, but said several recruiters have approached him, and he's not interested in joining the military. 

But Meisberger didn't give up. Instead, he tried to customize his sales pitch, by asking the young man exactly why he doesn't want to enlist.  Once he knows what's standing in the way, Meisberger  can offer a solution.

Testing recruits
National Guard Spec. Vanny Phomphakdy, right, encouraged students as they did pushups while Sgt. Acie Matthews talked with senior Christopher Anderson at Osseo High School Monday, Feb. 1, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"What did they tell you that made it click in your head that it wasn't for you?" Meisberger asked.

"I just wasn't interested, I guess," the young man said. 

The conversation came to an abrupt end when mall security arrived and told Meisberger something he already knew.  He's not supposed to be soliciting inside the mall. 

Meisberger has plenty of other places to look for recruits; three area high schools are in his territory.  He even taps the Minnesota Workforce Center resume database to chase down people who he thinks might make good Guard candidates. 

Nowadays, getting people interested in the military is only half the battle. They have to qualify, and 75 percent do not, according to the Minnesota National Guard.

"To be honest, I run into a lot of DUIs [driving under the influence offenses] in Minnesota," Meisberger said. "There's  a lot of people in Minnesota that can't get in because they have two DUIs, three DUIs."

Helping full-time Guard recruiters are thousands of current and former members of the military who sign on to be "assistants."  For every person they can bring into the Guard, those assistants receive $2,000.

RECRUITING A DIVERSE NATIONAL GUARD

When recruiting is going well overall, recruiters say they want to bring in more people of color.  According to military and Census Bureau statistics, the Minnesota National Guard falls short of reflecting the diversity of the state's  population.

High school recruitment
Osseo High School senior Christopher Christie shakes hands with Sgt. Acie Matthews as Christie, sophomore Lor Vong Vang, left, and other students visited with the National Guard recruiters in Osseo, Minn. Monday, Feb. 1, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Sgt. Maj. Dave Eustice, who leads the Guard's recruiting efforts in all of southern Minnesota, said diversity is an asset for Guard missions in Minnesota and outside of the U.S. 

"The life experience of individuals of African-American or Asian descent may be different than mine," said Eustice. "I grew up in a town of 2,000 people. But when you get us together, we have a tendency to be able to solve a lot more problems."

Eustice said the extent to which the Guard is already diversified has been paying off in Irag and Afghanistan. 

"Because we can get a long with a whole bunch of different kind of people," Eustice said. 

To bring in more people of color, Guard recruiters regularly attend Twin Cities area events like Rondo Days, the Hmong New Year and Cinco de Mayo celebrations. 

Eustice said it's even more of a struggle to enlist people of color, as overall interest in the Guard grows and entrance standards are tightened. 

"Really cracking the code on it. It's difficult to say what's going to break through," Eustice said. 

Minnesota Guard recruiter Acie Matthews works the northern suburbs from his office in Brooklyn Park.

Acie Mathews
Minnesota Army National Guard recruiter Sgt. Acie Mathews working on enlistement paperwork at his Brooklyn Park office.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Matthews, who's African-American,  said as more  people of color join the Guard, more people of color will hear about Guard service and consider the option.

"I think the biggest turn away from the  military  for minorities is that they don't  know as much about it, said Matthews. "The majority class would have a  grandfather or uncle or brother  who served, as opposed to minorities who may not know someone who served directly."

Matthews has been in the Minnesota National Guard for nine years, and has been deployed to Iraq.   He said he enlisted for the college money, and said pursuing military service was new in his family. But that's changed. 

"When I joined I didn't know anything about the military. I had never  even watched too many war movies," Matthews said. "But now I have two of my younger brothers who are actually in."

THE FUTURE OF RECRUITING

Although Guard recruiting is strong overall, that could change depending on what happens in Afghanistan, according to Beth Asch, a researcher with the Rand Corporation who specializes in Defense Department manpower issues.

"I think there's a lot of uncertainty if things get difficult there," Asch said. "Or, if we are there for a long time, are  we going to be able provide manpower of the kind we have?"

Asch also said research shows soldiers who are deployed are initially more likely than non-deployed soldiers to re-enlist, but that at a certain point too many deployments drive people away from the military.  

About 25 percent of Minnesota National Guard troops have served two or more combat deployments.