January 23, 2011: The U.S. Army National Guard has come through a decade of wartime service better than many expected. It is now reducing strength and sharply raising recruiting standards. In contrast, five years ago, the U.S. Army National Guard was four percent short of its authorized strength of 350,000. That was an improvement, because the previous Summer, it was five percent short. The National Guard is a reserve outfit that expects to be called to active duty mainly for local emergencies. But after September 11, 2001, most Guard members were called up, many to spend a year in Iraq. This discouraged many from joining, or staying in, the Guard. The downward trend was reversed by establishing limits for how long, and how often, Guard troops could be called up for active duty. After those 14-18 month (including training and preparation time) activations for Iraq and Afghanistan, the troops were wondering how often this would happen. Although recruiting was difficult in 2005-7, because so many National Guard troops were being activated and sent to Iraq, that situation was solved after 2008, with the defeat of the terrorists in Iraq and reduction in the need for Guard troops overseas.
The army cut way back on the activations. Meanwhile, there remained a major incentive for being in the National Guard; money. Most members of the Guard make more money on active duty, than they do in their civilian jobs, and the army added some more money and cleared up problems some troops had getting paid on time. More benefits were added, including some that had been sought for a long time (like family health care for troops called to active duty.)
Now the Army National Guard is reducing its strength, from 362,000 to 358,000. The additional troops are no longer needed, because National Guard units are not needed as much as they were during the peak years in Iraq (2004-7). The reduction is going to be done by raising recruiting standards, and eliminating re-enlistment bonuses. Among the changes for recruiters is a reduction of the maximum age from 42 to 35 and the elimination of medical and bad conduct (criminal record) waivers. Normally, a lot of medical and criminal justice problems (an arrest record, even a minor one) would keep you from enlisting. But during 2004-7, more exemptions for these problems were granted. No more. Also, commanders have been told to grant discharges more liberally (whether the soldier wants to get out, or the commander wants to "fire" a misbehaving trooper.)
The recession has also enabled the Guard to raise its standards. In some states, Guard standards are higher than for the active duty army. The higher quality recruits will benefit the Guard for the next two decades, as most troops stay in for twenty years to qualify for a pension (which is paid once the soldier reaches age sixty). Many of those Guard troops who will be still serving after 2020 will also have combat experience, which comes in handy even when dealing with a natural disaster.
A last benefit that most Guard units got was upgrading of their equipment. Normally, the Guard is the last to get new gear, and it's often hand-me-downs. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the military developing and buying a lot of new weapons and equipment. Many Guard units "used up" their elderly equipment quickly in Iraq, and then switched to the new and improved stuff. No more waiting for years (until all the active duty units were equipped) to get the new stuff. Guard troops came home with a lot of that new stuff, and received new, or more recent, gear to replace what had been left in Iraq or Afghanistan.