Tough new restrictions trim Guard's ranks

Some say the rules go too far

The Associated PressSeptember 3, 2009 

  • Under restrictions issued by the National Guard's top recruiting commander early this year:

    The maximum enlistment age was lowered from 42 to 35.

    The minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Test was raised for the Guard from 31 to 50 out of a possible 100.

    The Guard stopped forgiving potential recruits for offenses such as theft, assault, driving under the influence or chronic lawbreaking.

    The Guard stopped issuing medical waivers, which allowed recruits to be admitted despite health problems as serious as an extreme food allergy and as minor as a painful bout of acne.

— Suffer from a bad case of acne? That could disqualify you from joining the Army National Guard. Too many speeding tickets? In today's slimmer, smarter Guard, that could keep you out, too.

Under pressure from the Pentagon to trim its ranks, the Guard has been quietly phasing in new restrictions that make it harder to enlist.

"To get in now, you have to be the cream of the crop," said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Clum, a recruiter in Ohio.

Military officials portray the cutbacks as an effort to trim a Guard force that was bloated from years of successful recruiting, especially during the recession.

But there are suspicions inside the Guard and out that the reductions are part of an effort to shift the burden of fighting overseas onto the active-duty Army and ease the public outcry over the way that Guard units -- part-time soldiers normally called into action during hurricanes and other disasters at home -- have been sent on long, repeated combat tours in Iraq.

In fact, while the Pentagon has cut the National Guard by about 9,000 soldiers to 358,200 over the past six months or so, the nearly 549,000-strong active-duty Army is under orders to recruit 70,000 new soldiers by the end of September and 22,000 more in the coming fiscal year as the fighting in Iraq winds down and the war in Afghanistan escalates.

For some recruiters, the shrinking Guard is a source of frustration and envy, particularly because the regular Army is growing.

"We literally turn people away every day that want to serve, and we can't take them," said Lt. Col. Anthony Abbott, recruiting commander for the Georgia Army National Guard. "Sometimes you've got to scratch your head and ask why."

The tougher enlistment standards may have worked all too well. In June and July, the Guard failed to meet its recruiting goals because of what Col. Mike Jones, the Guard's top recruiting commander, said may have been a combination of the worsening bloodshed in Afghanistan and the higher standards.

In fact, over the past couple of weeks, Jones told Guard commanders in 40 states they are free to reverse some of the restrictions.

For people like Christopher Runyon, 19, of Glouster, Ohio, it has been one rejection after another. Runyon has failed the aptitude test three times, getting a 45 on his most recent attempt. A few months ago, that would have been a passing score.

Runyon said he plans to retake the test.

"I really got down on myself, and I really got discouraged," he said. "But I'm still trying, you know?"

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