Looking for Guard Recruits in Rural Alaska

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The Army National Guard in Alaska is making an extra effort to recruit in rural areas, where the Guard offers one of the best career tracks in places with few jobs. Ashley Gross of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the future of that other broadcast medium, television.

First, this. The war in Iraq makes life hard for many in the National Guard and for their families and for recruiters. Nationwide, the Army National Guard has run 20 percent short of its targets in this last year. Many states are now really working to try to meet their enlistment goals. In Alaska, the Army National Guard is turning to rural areas as part of its biggest recruitment effort in at least a decade. From Alaska Public Radio Network, Ashley Gross reports.

(Soundbite of marching)

ASHLEY GROSS reporting:

Under a light snowfall, Guard members march a long a road while training in Anchorage. Most of the members in this battalion are Yupik Eskimo. They come from villages where paved roads are rare and people zoom up and down frozen rivers on snow machines.

Unidentified Man: Keep the pace! Let's go, 1st Platoon!

GROSS: One of them is 19-year-old Seth Aguchuck(ph). He comes from Scammon Bay, a village of about 500 people on the Bering Sea coast. Joining the Guard instead of, say, the Army or the Marines allows him to stay home in his village. There, he helps his mother run a family business and hunts for beluga whales, seals and geese. But his friends don't share his enthusiasm for the Guard.

Mr. SETH AGUCHUCK (Alaska National Guard): They just said that they wouldn't do it. But I told them, `What else is there to do? There's nothing here, and I need money for college.' And I couldn't get the money, so I signed up.

GROSS: That's a common dilemma in villages like Scammon Bay, where jobs are scarce and per-capita income is less than $8,000 a year. Guard members earn about $8,000 a year for service at home, and many are eligible for a signing bonus of as much as $10,000. But Aguchuck knows his enlistment also carries risks. His battalion is scheduled to deploy to Iraq this summer.

Mr. AGUCHUCK: It scares me. It scares me a lot. But before I get there, I know I'm going to be ready for it.

GROSS: Serving in the Iraqi desert is a very different mission for the Alaskan National Guard. During World War II, more than 6,000 Alaskans, mostly native, formed the Territorial Guard known as the Eskimo Scouts. The unpaid militia guarded Alaska's coastline from Japanese attack. During the Cold War, they watched out for Soviet threats. Now the Guard is transforming again, this time into an infantry brigade combat team, units that can be mixed and matched with ones from other states. General Craig Christianson, who commands the Alaska Army National Guard, says that's what's driving this latest recruitment campaign.

General CRAIG CHRISTIANSON (Commander, Alaska Army National Guard): The question of whether we're recruiting for the war is, `No, absolutely not.' We're recruiting for the transformation of the third generation of the Guard.

GROSS: But more than 300 Alaska Guard members are in Iraq now, and that number is set to increase to about 700 by this summer. That's the Guard's largest deployment since World War II. But the Guard has missed its recruiting goals in eight of the last 10 years. This year, the Guard has about 2,000 slots with only 1,850 filled. Christianson aims to boost that number by 100 new recruits this year. To do that, he plans to visit all 73 of the state's armories, many of which are only reachable by plane. He's just back from northwest Alaska, where he asked tribal and village leaders for their support.

Gen. CHRISTIANSON: As I talked to them, I said, `I can recruit nobody. The community needs to recruit somebody who'll help do the paperwork.'

(Soundbite of telephones ringing)

Staff Sergeant TOM CHARLES (Army National Guard): Army National Guard recruiting. This is Sergeant Charlie speaking. Can I help you?

GROSS: Carrying out day-to-day recruiting are people like Staff Sergeant Tom Charlie. He's based in the mostly Yupik Eskimo town of Bethel. He says speaking Yupik puts recruits at ease.

Staff Sgt. CHARLES: Yeah. (Native language spoken) discharge order and your NGB 23.

GROSS: Charlie's grandfather served in the Territorial Guard and his father in the Alaska National Guard. He's proud of that legacy and his service, even if it means heading to war.

Staff Sgt. CHARLES: I'm, like, pretty much keeping the tradition alive of the--keeping the state of Alaska safe, you know. And nowadays, it's a worldwide mission for pretty much the nation right--National Guard members.

GROSS: It's that kind of patriotism Alaska National Guard officials will have to tap during their recruiting push. What was once known as the Tundra Army may now be needed elsewhere in the world. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Anchorage.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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