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updated: 8/20/2014 4:42 PM

Constable: National Guard recruiting, roles evolving

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  • Stepping onto the tarmac at O'Hare International Airport, these members of the Illinois Army National Guard's 66th Brigade were bound for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002.

       Stepping onto the tarmac at O'Hare International Airport, these members of the Illinois Army National Guard's 66th Brigade were bound for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer, 2002

  • Once planes returned to the skies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush used this speech at O'Hare International Airport to urge governors to call up the National Guard to secure the nation's airports.

      Once planes returned to the skies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush used this speech at O'Hare International Airport to urge governors to call up the National Guard to secure the nation's airports.
    AP file Photo/Stephen J. Carrera

  • In an attempt to limit environmental damage after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the National Guard operated helicopters in Louisiana.

      In an attempt to limit environmental damage after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the National Guard operated helicopters in Louisiana.
    AP file Photo/Gerald Herbert

  • Members of the Alaska National Guard dig out the fishing town of Cordova in 2012 after massive snows in Alaska collapsed roofs, trapped some people in homes and triggered avalanches.

      Members of the Alaska National Guard dig out the fishing town of Cordova in 2012 after massive snows in Alaska collapsed roofs, trapped some people in homes and triggered avalanches.
    AP file Photo/Alaska National Guard

 
 

Quaint and easy to remember, the National Guard's once-popular recruiting slogan just disappeared after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Oh, it certainly did," says Lt. Col. Daniel A. Reichen, commander of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion of the Illinois Army National Guard. "It was no 'one weekend a month, two weeks a year' for many of our part-time soldiers."

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It was full-time war.

We saw our "civilian soldiers" leave their jobs and families to wage Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq. As of today, 5,960 guardspeople and reservists are listed as casualties of the official Global War on Terror, with hostile fire killing 365 Army National Guard personnel, 126 Marine reservists and 17 Navy reservists, according to the Defense Casualty Analysis System statistics compiled by the Department of Defense.

This week, the Missouri National Guard was ordered to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where local police couldn't get a handle on the violent protests that erupted after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

In the midst of all this turmoil, a white envelope arrived this week in the homes of some suburban teens heading off to college. "Will you graduate college debt-free?" read a message on the envelope. Inside, a brochure showing smiling college graduates explained how enrolling in the National Guard could enable a student to "graduate from college with a degree, not debt."

That strategy of emphasizing the financial benefits of the National Guard traditionally has helped draw people into the service, including Lt. Col. Reichen, 43, who enlisted in the Guard in 1988.

"Mainly, I wanted to serve my country, but I wanted to go to school right away," says Reichen, who grew up in the small town of Utica near Starved Rock State Park.

He took advantage of the Guard's college tuition program and graduated with no lingering debt from school loans.

While working toward his bachelor's degree in marketing and international business at Illinois State University, Reichen was called to duty to help in the aftermath of the 1990 tornado that killed 29 people and destroyed parts of Plainfield.

He also served in Iraq.

"We have soldiers who would be happy just getting their training. Some soldiers just want to serve on active duty. We have both," Reichen says.

Illinois National Guard numbers, which stand at 10,200 now, remained strong during the heaviest fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Reichen says.

"It's contrary maybe to logic, but people want to serve," Reichen says.

Earlier this month, the Guard announced an end to its $32 million sponsorship of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and its $12 million sponsorship of Indy League's Graham Rahal, which apparently didn't bring in as many new recruits as the age-old offers of college money, retirement pensions and the chance to serve the country.

"People join the Guard to be part of the state-active duty," says Reichen, explaining how that state obligation often has Illinois guardspeople "fighting floods and winter storms and tornadoes."

Acknowledging that time spent overseas in Operation Iraqi Freedom gave guardspeople "a sense that you've done something for the greater good," Reichen adds that many members get that same satisfaction by filling sandbags for their neighbors back home.

With roots in the 1700s during battles between Native Americans and settlers, the National Guard has fought wars, helped keep the peace in union and labor disputes, and been summoned to riots and protests, from the tragic shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in 1970 through today's efforts in Ferguson.

"You save lives, protect property, deliver supplies and bring hope in the wake of natural disasters and other emergencies," the brochure promises.

"People want to serve," says Reichen, who says he sees the National Guard becoming more similar to the organization that he first joined. "My gut feeling is it's going to go back to one weekend a month, two weeks a year."

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