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Reserve recruiters' tactic may skirt edge of deception

Published May 27, 2004

Bryan Martinez thought his military service was over when he left the Army Reserves in 2000.

But on Monday, the 26-year-old boat rigger from Fort Walton Beach got a phone call that threatened to shatter the life he and his wife had built together.

A recruiter from the Florida National Guard told him he was on a list of former service members being sought by the Army Reserve for deployment in Iraq. Those who leave the military remain on an "inactive reserve" status for some time, subject to call-up in certain circumstances.

The National Guard recruiter, however, had an enticing offer.

"He was told he could either join the National Guard and complete his years there, or he could be activated and go to Iraq," said his wife, Angela Thomason-Martinez, 36, a bank underwriter who says her husband did not want to leave her. "Now he's been assigned to a National Guard unit out of Panama City, and my understanding is they just got back from an 18-month tour and they can't be sent back for another six years."

Some of Florida's 70 National Guard recruiters are making hundreds of similar phone calls to former service members these days, using the specter of an involuntary call-up to help boost their recruiting numbers. In the calls, recruiters say they note that someone signing up for the Guard has less chance of being sent to Iraq soon, since many Florida units have just returned from the war zone.

But in question is whether the potential recruits really are at risk of a call-up. The Army Reserve last week told recruiters to stop using this tactic, saying there are no plans to involuntarily call up those on inactive reserve, which also includes former active duty troops discharged after their service.

National Guard recruiters, however, say it's only a matter of time before the inactive reservists are called up and it's their duty to let reservists know they have another option. The result has been a race to recruit.

"It's a compete for numbers like anything else," said Master Sgt. Allen R. Swindell, 53, who supervises National Guard recruiters in the Panhandle. "It's an opportunity to put different people in different parts of the military. We're calling everyone in our area. A lot of them think it's a game. A lot of them think it's not true. But it's absolutely not a game."

* * *

This pool of inactive reservists is designed to fill military vacancies in times of emergency. These former soldiers started being tapped after Sept. 11, 2001. Before that, it was during Operation Desert Storm.

In January, the Army got permission to mobilize up to 6,500 inactive reservists for up to 24 months. It created a list of 22,000 people who still had time on their contracts under which they could be called up. So 700 Army Reserve recruiters around the country began calling, asking them to volunteer.

About 1,300 of them agreed. But the voluntary call-up went awry when it was learned that some recruiters had used high-pressure tactics, said Steven Stromvall, deputy director of public affairs for the Army Reserve.

The pitch was that if they joined the Army Reserve, they'd train one weekend a month and two weekends in the summer and maybe be sent over to Iraq at some future date. If they didn't volunteer, they'd soon be deployed involuntarily.

"There was miscommunication," Stromvall said, "If (they) had just said you might be called up, instead of you will be called up, we wouldn't have a problem. But if people signed up for a unit based on bad information, we're trying to correct that."

Some members of Congress are concerned.

"If even one soldier is deployed as a result of re-enlisting under questionable circumstances, the Pentagon isn't going to be able to handle the reaction from Congress," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Stromvall said there are no plans to involuntarily deploy the inactive reservists. But he also adds that he can't be sure that they won't be deployed.

"You know my crystal ball is broken," he said.

On his desk at the Florida National Guard Armory in Clearwater, recruiter Allan Paul Schulman prominently displays an award for getting 47 people to join the Guard in 2002.

He continued to break recruiting records until this year when the Iraq war made it a tougher sell. Now he and other recruiters around the state have seized on the potential call-up of the inactive reservists as a new recruiting tool.

"I can't guarantee they won't go, but I'm throwing this out there to them," he said.

So far though, he has called about 50 numbers with no results.

Recruiters in other parts of the state have been more successful. Swindell said his recruiters have attracted 14 people from the list.

"I'm telling them, "You don't have to wait to get a letter to be placed in a unit involuntarily,' " Swindell said. "You can come to the Guard. All of our units have already been overseas or are headed there. . . . I can't say you won't ever be called up, but right now if you get in a unit that just got back, the chances are you are not going anywhere for two to five years."

But those in charge of recruiting for the Florida National Guard and the Army National Guard in Washington D.C. expressed concern that recruiters were telling people they would be less likely to get called up if they were part of the National Guard.

"That's not the guidance I've put out," said Florida National Guard recruiting and retention commander Bob Quinney of St. Augustine. "This is an opportunity to join the National Guard and have an influence . . . in what unit you join, but the chances of being mobilized are just as high in the Guard."

He pointed out that 50 percent of the Florida National Guard is mobilized right now.

Army National Guard officials in Washington D.C. say they have not heard of any other states in which such recruiting practices are at issue but said recruiters around the country are calling some 22,000 inactive reservists to join the National Guard.

Quinney of the Florida National Guard said he planned to send a memo to all his recruiters discouraging them from offering the Guard as a safe haven for those fearful of being sent to Iraq.

Still, he, like other Florida National Guard recruiting officials, took issue with the Army Reserve's contention that there are no plans for inactive reservists to be called up against their will.

"They're playing secret squirrel with it," Swindell said "They're playing the thing down and we're playing the thing up."

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 01:01:27]

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