Connecticut Army National Guard Faces Uphill Battle to Meet Recruiting Goals

Alaska Army National Guard Soldier, Sgt. Brianna Pritchard, a helicopter crew chief with 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, explains the interior functions of a UH-72 Lakota helicopter to high school students during the 2nd annual Guard for a Day event held on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson April 17, 2019. The Guard for a Day event is targeted toward individuals wanting to know more about being a citizen-soldier, and gives attendees the opportunity to converse with Alaska Army National Guard soldiers
Alaska Army National Guard Soldier, Sgt. Brianna Pritchard, a helicopter crew chief with 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, explains the interior functions of a UH-72 Lakota helicopter to high school students during the 2nd annual Guard for a Day event held on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson April 17, 2019. The Guard for a Day event is targeted toward individuals wanting to know more about being a citizen-soldier, and gives attendees the opportunity to converse with Alaska Army National Guard soldiers and explore equipment used to respond during domestic disasters and worldwide contingency operations. (Marisa Lindsay/U.S. Army National Guard)

Sgt. 1st Class Justin McGale is pitching the Connecticut Army National Guard to a high school senior who's torn about her future.

She's been accepted to several colleges but is also considering military service. This summer will be her last with friends and family before going away, and she's not sure she wants to spend it at basic training.

McGale, 44, a recruiter with the Guard, calls a female he recruited, Natalie Penner, who just finished basic and who was recently in a similar position, and puts her on speakerphone.

"It's been one of the most fulfilling things I've done in my life," said Penner, who recently enlisted as a combat medic specialist and is starting at the University of Connecticut this fall.

Over the past year and a half, the Connecticut Army National Guard has bulked up its recruiting force from 32 recruiters to 46. The mission is to recruit 700 people in Connecticut this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2018. The goal for the New London office, of which McGale is the supervisor, is 59. The recruiters assigned to that office have enlisted 27 people so far.

"Citizen soldier"

Today's recruiting environment comes with its challenges. More than 70% of Americans ages 17 to 24 are ineligible to serve due to health issues, lack of a high school diploma, felony convictions or other reasons. With a growing economy -- the unemployment rate is the lowest its been since 1969 -- potential recruits also have competing job opportunities. So, the various military branches are competing for a small pool of candidates.

"Getting someone to buy a car is a tough choice, and people do research. Making a life decision where you're raising your hand, and you're signing a contract saying you're going to give six years of your life to serve in the military, that's a big decision," said Lt. Col. Alan Gilman, commander of the 6th Recruiting and Retention Battalion of the Connecticut Army National Guard.

"We're not going to ignore the fact that a lot of potential candidates may not be eligible or it's a highly competitive market. How can we address that and overcome that? Because in this business if you don't innovate and you don't adapt, you're not going to be successful," he said.

Last year, the Army National Guard, on the national level, missed its recruiting goal by 9,713, or 22%.

The Guard, which is unique in that it has both a federal and state mission, bills itself as the "citizen soldiers." Its members -- about 3,500 in the case of Connecticut -- live in-state. The majority of the Guard's members serve part time. That's who the recruiters are looking for: the soldier who serves in the Guard while going to school or working.

One of the Guard's main appeals, recruiters say, is that its members can take advantage of the education benefits -- free tuition at state universities and community colleges -- pretty much immediately. A recruit can go to basic training, then specialized training for their job, return to Connecticut and concurrently serve in the military and go to school, using their benefits.

"You're not necessarily putting life on hold, per se," Gilman said.

Fighting stereotypes

Given the large number of people the Guard is looking to recruit, it's offering robust benefit packages. Certain jobs come with a signing bonus worth $20,000 and extra money for school. That's on top of federal and state benefits available if someone chooses to enlist. Right now, there's high demand for skilled positions in the medical, aviation and cyber fields, among other jobs.

Still, that hasn't made recruiting any easier. A major challenge is overcoming the perception of the military as a last resort.

"In some school districts, what you find is there are stereotypes of this kid who doesn't have a lot of choices, maybe they can go into the military," Gilman said.

That's something McGale hears frequently from parents when trying to recruit high school students.

"Parents are like, 'Whoa, whoa, he's going to college,'" he said. "That's what we (the National Guard) want."

Free in-state college tuition may not be a sell for the parent of a high school student from an affluent area. So, McGale's tactic is to point to the workforce: That doctor you know? He's a colonel in the National Guard.

Seventeen-year-old Angelina Graziani, a senior at South Windsor High School, said her parents were surprised when she first mentioned the idea of enlisting in the military.

"They were nervous as parents hearing their daughter wanted to go into the military. That's something they didn't really expect from me," said Graziani, who enlisted in the Guard in March.

Her recruiter, Staff Sgt. Calista Knight, who works out of the Vernon office, said as a parent herself, she gets it.

"A lot of times parents are hesitant because they don't have all the information. I tell all my applicants, 'Ask me any questions you want.' So, I'd have her parents asking me questions, and she would text me questions. I'd tell them I don't care what time of day it is. Give me a call. Text me. I'll answer any questions," Knight said. "I think they could see I had her best interests in mind, and that I was going to take care of her."

For a younger recruiter like Staff Sgt. Joe Potter, 25, interacting with parents doesn't come as easily. It's more difficult for him to get parents to trust that he's going to "take care" of their kids.

On the other hand, because of his age, he can relate to those in the target demographic.

Potter, who grew up in Old Saybrook as one of seven children, said he was working as a security guard for a hospital, which he described as "just a job, something to put money in my pocket," before enlisting in the Guard about seven and a half years ago.

An uphill battle

With a shrinking pool of eligible candidates, and potential disqualifiers that can slow down or bar someone from enlisting, the Guard can't afford to target just one kind of person.

Sitting in his office one day, McGale begins ticking off potential disqualifiers: asthma, food allergies, taking oral medication for acne, a prescription to treat attention deficit disorder.

One of the biggest issues he's encountering is the legalization of marijuana, which Connecticut is considering. That sends a message to young people that it's OK to smoke. But federally, it's still illegal.

"I've had people say, 'I've tried it once or twice.' As soon as they say they've tried it once or twice, they can't enlist for a job with a security clearance," McGale said.

Recruiters prequalify people as they meet them. They ask questions that get at a person's age, their educational level, whether they've had any run-ins with the law.

On a recent trip to Mohegan Sun to search out potential candidates, Staff Sgt. Cody McVeigh, 24, approaches an employee at one of the stores.

"How long have you been working here? Do you plan to make a career out of this?" he asks.

The employee said she didn't want to work there, but she had a lot of student loans.

"That set me up perfectly to say what I was going to say," he says afterward, referring to his pitch about the Guard's educational benefits.

For McGale, who's been recruiting for about eight years, the toughest thing to teach a recruiter like McVeigh, who hasn't been doing it as long, "is how to take the informational conversation into a sell, a close. At least a meeting."

A good friend of his called it a "kneecap to kneecap" conversation.

"There is a lot of rejection," Gilman said. This is the kind of job where you could go through 50 people telling you to 'go pound sand. Why are you bothering me?' to get to that one person who says 'yeah, I'm interested.'"

It can be mentally wearing, but you can't let that show, said Sgt. Mario Soriano, 25.

"Maybe you lost two applicants yesterday ... but whatever happened yesterday, happened yesterday. It stays there, and that's it, move on to the next one," Soriano said. "That's the biggest thing in recruiting, your attitude with the different situations you encounter."

Community ties

With the 14 additional recruiters plus turnover, the Guard's recruiting force in Connecticut is "pretty green," Gilman said.

Recruiters like Potter and Sgt. Conrad Sheldon 22, both of whom have been recruiting for less than a year out of the New London office, are learning to navigate their respective territories, finding out where people congregate and building what the Guard calls "center of influences"-- elected officials, principals, civic organizations -- connections that can help them spread the word about the Guard and what it has to offer.

While people do walk into recruiting officers wanting to enlist, its more common to get candidates through referrals and establishing partnerships with the community.

The Guard works with school districts and youth organizations to develop programs that supplement their educational programs but also provide an introduction to the Guard. Recent examples include taking Norwich Free Academy students on a tour of the Guard's aviation maintenance facility in Groton, letting a group of Plainfield High School students get a chance to use the weapons simulator at its training facility, Camp Nett, an inaugural competition for junior reserve officer corps cadets, and a teambuilding exercise for East Lyme High School boys and girls lacross teams.

Those are opportunities for recruiters to interact with the community and "articulate that there's more to the National Guard than most people realize," Gilman, the recruiting commander, said.

Many recruiters will stay in touch with recruits throughout their service, or even their family members.

McGale recently got a text message from the uncle of someone he recruited, thanking him for "everything he did," and that he helped sculpt the recruit into a great man.

"That's what makes this worth it," McGale said.

This article is written by Article Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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