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By Miguel Alejandro Laborde

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force. 

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (NDAA) – both House and Senate versions – have a number of provisions that seek to address recruitment and retention issues in our military. Some of these items focus on finding talent for key defense needs, addressing skill gaps, and addressing issues with the National Guard’s readiness centers. Additionally, this fiscal year has seen a strong push to require women to register in the Selective Service System. And while recruitment and retention concerns are a perennial issue for defense policymakers in DC, the fact that the Congress is taking on this set of issues now is both notable and important – particularly given the overarching social, economic, and readiness concerns affecting the nation.

National Guard Service

Concerns about readiness, recruiting and retention are not unfounded. In fact, throughout 2021, the hurdles to recruiting qualified personnel to serve in our armed forces – and then retaining trained, experienced personnel in the ranks – are many. 

Key statistics help illustrate the challenges at hand. For example, roughly 70% of Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible for duty in the armed services – due to physical and mental health issues, criminal records, or other disqualifiers like drug use or lack of a high school diploma.[1] And on top of that – the interest for young adults in serving in the military is low; only 13% of young adults express a positive propensity to serve.[2] And, the enduring coronavirus pandemic limits the effectiveness of traditional recruiting methods.[3] All of this makes the recruiters’ job difficult – as the military needs at least 150,000 new recruits annually to meet its total force end-strength.[4]

National Guard

National Guard personnel in formation as they leave a state-managed coronavirus drive-through testing site on Staten Island in New York.Credit...

And while the services made their recruiting goals in 2020 – sources suggest it was largely due to the economic downturn and weak civilian sector job market. In 2018, a year of robust economic strength, the Army failed to meet its recruitment goals;[5] a future economic rebound may once again challenge military recruitment.

In all of this, our defense policy leaders in Washington DC should remember and consider the role of the National Guard in supporting and enhancing our recruitment and retention needs. Simply, the National Guard may offer real and workable solutions and advantages to ensuring our armed forces meet their annual military personnel goals.

For a host of reasons, our National Guard forces – both the Army and Air National Guard – serve as an important tool for both attracting citizens to military service, and incentivizing those members to remain in uniform. Key here is the fundamental importance of the National Guard in contributing to the Nation’s total force end-strength – a requirement that would not likely be met without the incentives of flexibility inherent in National Guard and reserve service.

Active Duty Transition

Additionally, recruits who initially join the National Guard often transition over to active duty; in these cases, the Guard essentially acts as a recruiting pipeline to the active force. And in the reverse, active duty members often remain in the reserves, or transition to the National Guard after their active obligation is completed. While members choose to stay in the reserves for multiple reasons – from enduring patriotism to simply continuing to do what they love – this healthy interplay between active duty and Guard service is positive for military members, and conducive to a ready and effective service. As the joint force continues to enhance seamlessness and greater interoperability, these dynamics are important to observe and consider.

Career 

The Guard also provides a pathway for impoverished or lower income citizens to seek a career field or higher education. This is a vital conduit out of poverty that serves a dual purpose by also helping the Nation meet its force strength goals – and ultimately, strengthening America. There is an appeal a young person gets when they see a recruiter in the neighborhood with a good haircut, lots of ribbons, a sharp crease, and shined shoes. The discipline and pride are easily perceived, and for those looking for inspiration one cannot help but start to dream. In certain parts of the country, an aspiration can be a lifeline. Hope brings light, and a brighter future – or a future at all.

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Army National Guard

One hundred sixty New York Army National Guard Soldiers honed their emergency response skills during exercise Guardian Response 2019.

As a personal anecdote, the Army provided this author a means to a trade, an education, continued discipline, and a way out of poverty in Puerto Rico. My service followed a long tradition of service, in that every man in my family served in the National Guard, was called up, and did their duty. My own father remained in service, and this offered me the ability to learn English, and score high on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). Joining the military provided me with an escape from an environment of limited investment and poor education prospects that doomed many of my peers to a life of low-income jobs. Without the Guard in my neighborhood, many young men like me would never have left the island – but those who seized the opportunity gained important skills for life and many used the GI Bill to earn a degree.

Citizen-Soldier

Finally, at a more philosophical level – our Guard forces help to reinforce the time-honored idea of America’s citizen-soldier, a concept and traditional that is especially important now in our current time of social strife, polarization and eroding trust in institutions. Additionally, the citizen-soldier idea embodied by the Guard helps cement vital civic leadership investment in our local communities; Guardsmen and women bring important understanding and a sense of service back home to the community level. Broadly, it is the National Guard – with men and women serving in uniform both at home and abroad – that helps to remind the country what positive national service looks like, and what selfless commitment to community and country consists of.

The Future

Looking ahead, as the new National Defense Strategy is rolled out for 2022, and as the budget for FY23 is formulated, Congress and the Administration should consider the role and contributions of the National Guard in helping attain and retain qualified, patriotic citizens for military service. And – as force planners and decision-makers in the Pentagon try to find ways to thread the needle between cost, capability and readiness – the cost-effectiveness and wider advantages of the National Guard should not be discounted or marginalized. With all of the challenges facing the services in the years ahead – including in the areas of recruitment and retention – our National Guard stands as a force multiplier on several fronts, and vital to America’s defense strength.

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Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force. 

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-07-12/joining-the-military-doesn-t-appeal-to-enough-young-americans

[2] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-07-12/joining-the-military-doesn-t-appeal-to-enough-young-americans

[3] https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2021/05/05/pandemic-and-political-discourse-challenge-army-recruiting-efforts/

[4] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-07-12/joining-the-military-doesn-t-appeal-to-enough-young-americans

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-07-12/joining-the-military-doesn-t-appeal-to-enough-young-americans