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Guard recruitment continues upward

WILLMAR -- Today's high school graduates were finishing the seventh grade when American troops rolled into Iraq.

Five years later and the war still unresolved, they are joining the Minnesota National Guard in numbers higher than any seen before 9/11.

Some are signing up knowing that they will be deployed to Iraq as soon as they complete their training, local recruiters told the Tribune. All prospective recruits are told that an overseas deployment is a very real possibility.

"It's more a question of not if, but when,'' said Samantha Robinson of Buffalo, a brand new member of the Minnesota Guard in describing the message she took from her recruiter.

Robinson and friend Kim Dyal of Sauk Centre, also a new recruit, were at the National Guard Armory in Willmar early last week to visit with nearly a dozen high school students from the area. They came for pizza and the chance to hear more about the Guard.

In contrast to what many might believe, recruitment has "never been better'' for the Guard, according to Lt. Col. Jake Kulzer.

He returned from duty in Iraq to head the Minnesota National Guard recruitment efforts nine months ago. He has big boots to fill: From 2001 to 2007, the Minnesota National Guard grew by 12.3 percent, adding more than 1,000 soldiers, or the equivalent of a combat battalion, according to the Guard. Its 2007 annual report shows 13,651 members.

Recruiters were given the mission of signing up 1,400 new members this year, but are on pace to add 1,800 or possibly even 2,000, according to Kulzer.

The prospective recruits are also among the best the Guard has ever considered, Kulzer said. Scores on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test and high school grades have been trending upward in recent years, he said.

Fewer than 2 percent of the men and women joining the Guard enter with a "moral waiver'' for any criminal convictions, such as underage consumption of alcohol. In other states, it's more typical that 6 percent enter under waivers, according to Kulzer.

Recruitment is strongest in the areas of the state where the Guard has traditionally seen its greatest support. Rural areas have always sent a greater proportion of its young people into the Guard than urban areas, and that is still the case, said Kulzer.

Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Stafford has been overseeing recruitment efforts in the Willmar area. Her husband recently returned from duty in Iraq with the Litchfield unit. Like everyone else, she mourned the loss of local Guardsmen who have given their lives in Iraq.

Sgt. Stafford said the realities of Iraq are very much on the minds of young people who consider joining the Guard. It is the topic most often raised by their parents.

At the same time, Stafford said young people often cite the events of 9/11 and the war as strengthening their desire to serve their country.

New recruits cite two factors more than anything else in their decision to enlist, according to Staff Sgt. Mindy Davis, who works in marketing for the Guard. They are attracted by the educational support and economic incentives the Guard offers, and by a sense of patriotism.

"They want to be part of something bigger than themselves,'' Kulzer said.

Dyal and Robinson said both the opportunity for educational assistance and a desire to serve country were important factors in their decisions to enlist. They said their decisions were also influenced by the fact that they have parents or other close relatives with prior military service.

Davis said a recent survey of new recruits showed that well over one-half of them came from families with a military tradition.

Kulzer also credits the leadership in the Guard for making it a more appealing option for young people. And, he said there is no doubt that the public and media attention given to servicemen and women as they are welcomed back from Iraq has been very important too.

High school guidance counselors at six area schools contacted via e-mail told the Tribune that student interest in the Guard appears to be at least the same as in the past, although it is something they do not formally track. They noted that the war in Iraq is very much a factor on the minds of students, but so too is the economy and the economic and educational benefits the Guard offers.