Extended deployments and escalating violence in Iraq have not slowed Utah National Guard or Army Reserve enlistments, nor has it soured soldiers on re-enlisting for active duty.
That assessment came Friday, even as members of another Salt Lake City-based unit found out that they would be spending as long as 120 more days in Iraq. The 419th Transportation Company, which includes 170 Army Reserve soldiers, had its tour of duty involuntarily extended.
The 419th, one of 65 units that make up the 96th U.S. Army Regional Readiness Command, was first deployed in February 2003. The soldiers are responsible for construction, transportation, maintenance, medical care and public affairs.
Utah has consistently been among the top 10 states for meeting or exceeding enlistment goals over the past two years, a trend that has not slowed even as news reports both domestically and in Iraq have painted a more dour picture for soldiers, said Lt. Col. Darren Atack, the recruitment and retention coordinator for the Utah Army National Guard.
The recently completed month for statistical purposes, they track enlistments starting to the 15th of each month was actually the best one of their fiscal year, which began in October.
Atack said that they need to average 80 enlistments a month in Utah, a number they have met most of the months since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"We've been able to keep up with our enlistment targets, and it's been going up in the last four months," Atack said. "We're at about the same levels as we have been in the past three or four years."
Although spring is the busiest recruiting period because of high school graduates, he did expect the numbers to be less than usual in the coming month, primarily because of the extension of the 1457th Engineer Battalion's deployment in Iraq. The division has been in the war zone for more than a year and had been waiting in Kuwait to come home when its extension was announced Thursday.
While negative news does hurt enlistment efforts, the return of other National Guard soldiers helps encourage new enlistees because they see the pride of the returning soldiers and understand the continued need for military help, Atack said. Also, improved benefits, such as bonuses and tuition assistance, help draw new soldiers to the National Guard.
Soldiers re-enlisting for both active duty and in the Army Reserves has not been hurt by the continued problems in Iraq, either, and is actually less challenging than many recruitment officers expected, Army Reserve Maj. Sgt. Gary Younger said. Although he did not have numbers for Utah specifically, national trends show that enlistment numbers are meeting expectations.
"The feeling that I have is that we are not seeing the effect we expected," Younger said. "Soldiers are staying in uniform."
Younger said that part of the attraction for re-enlistment is that many soldiers become part of a group with which they feel obligated to continue serving, especially if they have been in a war zone together."Those folks that you go through the experience with creates a bond that is very difficult to break," he said.