Forced to shrink, Army National Guard gets pickier

Christopher Runyon, 19, stands outside of his home in Glouster, Ohio, late last month. Runyon has been unable to enlist in the armed services after failing to make a qualifying score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Under pressure from the Pentagon, the National Guard has been quietly phasing in new restrictions that make it harder to enlist. (TY WRIGHT ~ Associated Press)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Suffer from a bad case of acne? That could disqualify you from joining the Army National Guard. Too many speeding tickets? In today's slimmer, smarter Guard, that could keep you out, too.

Under pressure from the Pentagon to trim its ranks, the Guard has been quietly phasing in new restrictions that make it harder to enlist.

"To get in now, you have to be the cream of the crop," said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Clum, a recruiter in Ohio.

Military officials portray the cutbacks as an effort to trim excess from a Guard force that was bloated from years of successful recruiting, especially during the recession.

But there are suspicions inside the Guard and out that the reductions are part of an effort to shift the burden of fighting overseas onto the active-duty Army and ease the public outcry over the way that Guard units -- part-time soldiers normally called into action during hurricanes and other disasters at home -- have been sent on long, repeated combat tours in Iraq.

In fact, while the Pentagon has cut the National Guard by about 9,000 soldiers to 358,200 over the past six months or so, the nearly 549,000-strong active-duty Army is under orders to recruit 70,000 new soldiers by the end of September and 22,000 more in the coming fiscal year as the fighting in Iraq winds down and the war in Afghanistan escalates.

Under restrictions issued by the National Guard's top recruiting commander early this year, the maximum enlistment age was lowered from 42 to 35. And the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battry, the exam required by all branches of the military, was raised for the Guard from 31 to 50 out of a possible 100.

Also, the Guard stopped forgiving potential recruits for offenses such as theft, assault, driving under the influence or chronic lawbreaking. And it stopped issuing medical waivers, which allowed recruits to be admitted despite health problems as serious as an extreme food allergy and as minor as a painful bout of acne.

In addition, the Guard's budget for bonus money has been cut. While most recruits since 2006 got $20,000 just for signing up, now only a precious few are eligible for any bonus money at all.

For people like 19-year-old Christopher Runyon of Glouster, Ohio, it has been one rejection after another. Runyon has failed to make a qualifying score on the aptitude test three times, getting a 45 on his most recent attempt. A few months ago, that would have been a passing grade.

Runyon said he is still in contact with his local recruiter and plans to retake the test.

"I really got down on myself and I really got discouraged," he said. "But I'm still trying, you know?"

But the future does not look promising. The Guard will release 1,400 recruiters from duty at the end of September. And in the fiscal year that begins in October, the Guard will lose more than $200 million in funding for recruiting and retention.

John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, an advocacy group, said it makes little sense to turn off the Guard's recruiting machine when it has been the most successful of any military branch at bringing in high-quality soldiers.

That success stemmed from cutting-edge recruiting methods, including advertising through NASCAR, he said.

"If you want to reduce the burden on the Army Guard, grow the Army Guard," Goheen said. "Therefore the burden is reduced because we'll have more units."