MINNEAPOLIS — War weary after 11 years of combat, the U.S. military is retooling, rebalancing and retraining, drawing down its forces and facing massive budget cuts for the first time in years.
As the active duty reduces its numbers, the country’s reserve force will be asked to do more, and do it with less.
The Pentagon has been ordered to slash its budget by $487 billion over the next decade, cuts that will change the face of the modern American military.
In Minnesota, the 13,000-member Minnesota Guard will be most visibly affected by the changes.
The Guard’s weekend warriors essentially will be put on permanent alert status – a future that could include serving more frequently or for longer periods of time.
“You just never know what’s going to happen in the future,” said Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Major John Schwartz, whose team in south central Minnesota was the state’s top recruiters this year. “There are wars going on and we’re here to fight them.”
Preparing for this new reality includes a renewed focus by the Guard on recruiting new soldiers and caring for its members who have come home damaged.
As the active duty Army is reduced, the National Guard is expected to remain at about its current 358,000 soldiers or face only slight reductions. The Minnesota Guard is expected to reduce its mission strength by only 55 soldiers next year.
The Guard often had a waiting list last year and said it can afford to be selective.
“The situation in Minnesota today is that there are more Minnesotans who want to serve than we have force structure for,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Burggraff, commander of the Minnesota Guard’s recruitment and retention battalion.
Particularly in Minnesota, where the Guard dominates: Nearly half of those who enlist in the military in the state sign up with the Minnesota Guard.
“We are the military people affiliate with and watch,” said Col. Jon Jensen, chief of staff for Minnesota’s top general. Still, the Guard must constantly replenish its ranks at one end of its force to address retirements at the other.
The Minnesota Guard spends $4 million a year on recruiting and marketing, much of it as sophisticated and subliminal as any corporate branding campaign.
They still make time-tested trips – gear and all – to high schools around the state, setting up climbing walls and obstacle courses. But they also bring the traveling Army Adventure Van, with its computer-simulated battlefield scenes, to a generation brought up on video games.
They’ve spent more than $1.4 million over the past three years to advertise with the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Wild.
Besides massive billboards hanging outside Mall of America Field, the Guard sponsors a day in which football players and coaches from across the state are brought in for one-on mentoring with Vikings personnel. They discuss tying physical fitness and nutrition to good citizenship and lifestyle skills that just might include joining the military.
The Guard has also focused on improving the diversity in its ranks, particularly among Hispanics. Two years ago, ethnic and racial minorities in the Guard stood at 6 percent in a state with a minority population of about 13 percent.
Today the diversity rate in the Guard is closer to 10 percent.
Still, the cultural divide can be difficult to overcome. At a recent Hispanic festival in St. Paul, set up between booths for Pawn America and the Tutor Doctor, the Guard’s recruiting booth promoted tuition assistance, the chance for adventure and $3,691 a year in pay for an entry-level position. There were few takers.
“It’s difficult when you talk to Hispanic parents, it’s like, ‘They’re going to go kill my son,’ ” said Guard Specialist Michelle Rose Amparan. “Kids say they want to join, parents say ‘no.’ ”
Caring for and retaining current soldiers will take on added importance. After a decade of war, many who joined out of high school and have deployed are now looking at lives with families and new sets of civilian obligations.
At Camp Ripley, members of a unit that had been on the border of Kuwait and Iraq when the war ended recently participated in reintegration drills.
They unpacked and turned in equipment left in containers in Kuwait two months earlier. Even with the doors wide open, the smell of once-sweaty clothing filled the gym. Clerks with clipboards marked down items as soldiers pulled out belongings long forgotten from their last days in the desert.
Specialist Jeremy Baker unpacked photo albums of his daughter’s first year and a stuffed teddy bear he brought with him. “All this made it a lot easier,” said Baker, of Elk River.
Now firmly on U.S. soil, deployment “seems like a dream that’s fading away.” A self-described punk rocker when he joined the National Guard at 17, now at 21 the husband and father is torn about whether to stay in the Guard.
“I got goals set with my wife after my contract is up,” he said. “But being in the Guard is a happy medium. You’ve got the military and you’ve got family life.”
Across the camp, recently returned soldiers sat around tables with iPad-like tablets, filling out questions about their mental and physical health. After 10 years, the process has become efficient.
“Soldiers are more readily telling us about their problems than they were to begin with,” said Jan Flanagan, who works with Logistics Health Inc., the company that manages the program.
Within a week to 10 days, the information has made its way to the Army’s massive medical processing system for recordkeeping and analysis. They are looking for new physical problems, signs of stress, and for indications of psychological wounds, like traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, which often takes time to surface.
Guard leadership has begun an aggressive campaign to promote mental toughness at the unit level. Through October, 215 master resilience trainers have been placed with Guard units and 3,100 service members have come forward to use resources for family relationships, substance abuse or financial problems.
Shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday, more than 100 soldiers crowded into an armory in Roseville as Col. Bill Lieder, director of the Minnesota Guard’s Joint Staff, took the microphone. After leading the nation in suicides in 2010, the Minnesota National Guard had six suicides in 2011 and none so far this year.
Lieder, who was a commander in Iraq when Minnesota troops had their deployment unexpectedly extended, spoke on the importance of being resilient. Near the end of his speech, in a nod to the Guard’s new caring tone, Lieder ordered the assembled soldiers to take out their cellphones. He gave out the number of a veterans’ crisis line, repeated it, and ordered them to plug it into their phones.
The soldiers did what they were told.