An Illinois Army National Guard memo distributed to commanders early this year described lapses in leadership, flagging retention and low morale among deployed Guard units and calls into question the ability to field a ready fighting force.
The Illinois Army National Guard's second in command, Brig. Gen. Charles E. Fleming, based the Jan. 29 memo on a survey of 1,200 Guard troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. bases last year.
"When soldiers were asked questions regarding retention, morale and leadership, the results were shocking," said the memo, which sought to begin correcting the problems.
Of soldiers trained for duty in so-called military occupational specialties--military job skills--the memo says the "Illinois Army National Guard's readiness continues to suffer."
The non-classified memo, which was provided to the Chicago Tribune, identifies particular problems in finding and retaining officers, and it says fewer soldiers are re-enlisting after basic and advanced infantry training--a period when soldiers historically are the most "motivated and aggressive" to further their military careers.
The memo raised concerns about a leadership climate in which it is often felt that officers are more concerned about their own advancement than the well-being of their troops. Soldiers in interviews said they have not raised critical questions over readiness for fear of retribution from Guard leadership.
The memo, called an operations order, comes as the Army National Guard is undergoing convulsive changes to make it more responsive to sudden wartime call-ups.
Nationally, surveys of returning troops find similar trends, and the number of new recruits has been falling in active-duty military, reserve and National Guard units.
The Illinois Army National Guard in particular has grappled with leadership and staffing issues in recent years, the extent of which was outlined in Fleming's memo.
Guard commander Maj. Gen. Randal E. Thomas on Friday called the memo a snapshot taken at a low point in the Guard's morale as its first underequipped troops were returning from Iraq.
"The situation was we've got some issues to solve in personnel and manpower," Thomas said. "This was a strategy, but I do believe we need to change the culture of the Guard."
According to a survey of Illinois Guard members, Fleming cited in the memo, "the majority of soldiers feel they are poorly informed, inadequately cared for, and that training in their units is boring and unorganized."
More than three-quarters thought unit morale was a big problem while deployed to Iraq.
Only half had faith in their non-commissioned officers' effect on morale, while 72 percent disagreed with the statement: "Officer leadership during the [mobilization] had a very positive effect on the unit's morale."
Further, the survey revealed that half the soldiers surveyed believed their officers were more interested in rank advancement than caring for their troops. Only 41 percent thought the state appreciated their service during mobilization.
In response to the leadership concerns, 490 officers and senior sergeants in the Illinois Guard met for three days in February at Illinois State University in Normal.
The stakes could not be higher, said Lt. Col. Brian C. Redmon, recruiting and retention manager for the Illinois Guard.
"If this is true and nothing changes, we are going to have serious problems," he said.
Thomas interrupted him and finished the sentence another way: "We won't have a Guard."
Even after retention efforts were jump-started by the January memo, Thomas said personnel issues remain the biggest challenge facing the Illinois Guard. And though training has improved, he said he worried about returning combat vets remaining engaged in the quieter day-to-day life of National Guard service in the U.S.
Falling short in recruits
Also, as of last week, the Guard was 600 troops short of its recruitment goal for fiscal 2005, which ends in September. The Guard aims to have a force of 9,700.
Skepticism about the intentions of senior Guard leadership is widely held in the ranks, said retired Master Sgt. Randy Craig, who spent 17 years in the Illinois Army National Guard before retiring in 2003.
As an example of rifts with headquarters, Craig said that last year he and others from his former unit--the 1544th Transportation Company based in Paris, Ill.--sent handheld radios to unit soldiers in Iraq after receiving e-mails detailing poor communications between trucks.
Craig said Guard officials in Springfield called to complain, saying the radios were unauthorized and dangerous. Still, within weeks, their effectiveness seemed clear, and the use of civilian-style handheld radios soon became widespread among transportation units.
When later Illinois units deployed to Iraq, Guard officials reversed their opinion and asked for the radios, Craig said.
Uncertainty after that kind of reversal--as well as lingering questions about up-to-date vehicles and training for such seemingly central pieces of equipment as weapons and night-vision goggles--has dogged the Illinois Guard, Craig said.
The doubts may help explain lagging retention.
But many personnel shortages in units have been fixed since the operations order was drafted, Thomas said.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Army has outlined a plan to change its focus to smaller, more easily deployable units. Under the plan, some 7,000 soldiers in Illinois' 9,100-strong force will be shifted between units, in some cases eliminating understaffed units altogether.
Old-fashioned air defense units, for instance, will disappear. New military police units are on the horizon, as well as additional anti-chemical-warfare units.
But because of the personnel shortage, the Guard has also been forced to shift soldiers to units about to deploy, leaving other units understaffed, Illinois Guard officials say. Additional fully manned units, often just returned from Iraq, have been put on stand-by as quick-reaction forces in case of a stateside emergency.
$8,000 enlistment bonus
As a retention stopgap over the last year, $8,000 enlistment bonuses have been offered for recruits willing to join the infantry ranks, or work as military truck drivers, military police officers, combat engineers, cannon crew members, mechanics or equipment maintainers, warehouse workers, medical specialists and food preparers.
Also, $6,000 bonuses were offered to anyone willing to fill vacant slots in deployable units.
A dwindling supply of officers also was cited in the memo. Eighty new officers were brought into the Illinois Army National Guard in the year ending last September, though the memo notes that 102 officers left in that time--an exodus particularly felt in combat units.
In addition, 486 new enlistees never even shipped out--they were discharged before basic training. Later dropouts before soldiers were fully trained accounted for 36 percent of the soldiers leaving the Illinois Army National Guard. The figure was three times the goal set by the National Guard Bureau--the federal agency that allocates national missions and resources for the Guard.
The goals Fleming sets in the memo are to retain more than 80 percent of a unit's members each year, while reducing dropouts before basic training and fostering the development of officers from within the Guard's ranks. Also, Illinois Army National Guard units were assigned to study their own interrelationships between leadership and troop retention. New leadership training has begun, as well as military career counseling in each unit.
Meanwhile, awards--including football jerseys from the Guard's football-inspired Terry Tate "Retention Linebacker Campaign"--were to be given for the 10 units with top retention scores. The command teams of the top five units in retention and recruitment are eligible for tandem parachute jumps with the Army's elite Golden Knights demonstration team, the memo stated.
Nevertheless, soldiers and Guard officials say staffing issues and questions about Guard leadership remain.
"If there was anything else we could do to change that perception, I would do it," Thomas said.
Added Col. Christopher Lawson, director of operations for the Guard: "We're playing ball here to listen and fix things soldiers say are wrong."