LAUREL – Sgt. Bruce Ziegler spends his days setting up lunchroom displays at local high schools, canvassing malls, restaurants and even gas stations looking for people he can sell on the Maryland National Guard.
There’s no one he won’t pitch the Guard to.
“I’ll talk to everyone,” said Ziegler, a recruiter who works out of the Maryland National Guard Armory in Laurel.
But while Ziegler is going at full speed, National Guard recruiting has slowed down. Army Secretary Francis Harvey said last week that Guard recruiting was running at about 75 percent of its goal through February, which he said is a concern.
With the possibility of going to war looming behind even the brightest pitch, Ziegler, an eternally upbeat Kansas native, allows as how his job can be a challenge.
“Yes, I get a lot of nos,” Ziegler said.
Recent news reports may not have helped — they have included stories of regular military units that sometimes got better pay, better gear and better treatment than the Reserve and Guard units. Military officials have been hauled up to Capitol Hill multiple times since the war began to discuss those discrepancies.
The Guard and Reserve accounted for nearly half of the Army’s soldiers in the Central Command region, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan, as of Jan. 31, according to the Pentagon.
Recruitment for the Maryland Guard, specifically, is at 80 percent of its goal for the first six months of the fiscal year, said Lt. Col. Kevin Preston, who oversees recruitment for the state’s Guard. But he said neither the war nor the current lag in new sign-ups should keep the Guard from meeting its annual goal by October, the end of its fiscal year.
“Recruiting is a cycling business,” Preston said, noting that it is usually slower during the winter months and then picks up again in the spring.
“I fully believe that we can meet our mission” by the end of the year, he said.
The regular military has responded recently with several measures that could help.
The Pentagon said guardsmen and reservists — who can lose military medical coverage shortly after they come off active duty — will now be able to extend coverage under the Tri-Care system for up to eight years after they leave active duty, as long as they keep drilling.
The Army also announced last week it is lifting the maximum age for enlistment in the Guard and Reserves to 39 from 34, expanding a pool of potential recruits that has already been thinned by a litany of potential disqualifications, from felonies to asthma.
“I think it’s going to help a lot,” Ziegler said of the age change.
Still, Ziegler said that concerns about the war keep cropping up in conversations with potential recruits. They want to know if they will be deployed, and they want to know what being in Iraq is like — which he can answer, having only returned from that country a year ago.
“It definitely helps,” said Ziegler, 27, of his experience overseas, which includes memories of 156-degree heat. “I’m able to relate what it’s like. I’m able to address those concerns.”
He hears from people who disapprove of the war. But when he does run into someone who wants to argue, he knows that, “It’s definitely not personal.”
“(Those) people don’t dislike me. They dislike the military,” he said.
It helps that Ziegler believes fervently in military service.
“It’s one of the best things you could ever do,” Ziegler said.
He is not the only one trolling for recruits: He sees more recruiters from other branches of the military at the high schools where he sets up displays during lunchtime, before he heads out to local malls during the afternoons or hits the phones at night.
It is that work ethic and relentlessly upbeat nature that Preston says will help his recruiters rise back up to their yearly goals.
“It’s a fun story to say that a person can’t recruit because of the war,” Preston said. It is certainly more difficult, he said, but with recruiters who have a “zest” for their job, “This is a winnable fight.”
For his part, Ziegler said he has nothing but zest for the job, which can be a many-step process of getting a candidate from the mall into his office and then suited up for training.
“At my level I don’t feel the pressure,” said Ziegler. When he is pushed, he said, he simply tries to “turn it into something positive.”
“To me it’s been a rush,” he said.
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