The National Guard is facing the deepest shortfalls in recruiting in more than a decade just when it is at its busiest since World War II, forcing commanders to rethink how they attract and keep part-time guardsmen.
As the war on Islamist terrorists has required mobilization of more than 214,000 guardsmen -- two-thirds of the force -- personnel who expected to drill a weekend a month and never stray far from home now find themselves subjected to up to two years on active duty.
"We have a recruiting and retention challenge," said Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, adjutant general of the Maryland Air and Army National Guard. "Part of the retention problem is the fact that we need to become a much more user-friendly organization for our soldiers."
Maryland offers a good snapshot of a hard-pressed National Guard since the September 11 attacks.
It has activated more than 4,500 personnel in air wings, military police, intelligence units, infantry and special operations.
"We actually have a little bit of everything," said Maj. Charles Kohler, a Maryland Guard spokesman.
Frequent call-ups are taking a toll. The Pentagon authorizes Maryland 6,860 soldiers; it has 5,696.
The story is about the same in the more than 2,500 Guard armories across the country. None has escaped the nation's need for reserve forces to spend long tours on active duty.
Like the active Army, the Guard has fallen far behind its recruiting goal. It wanted nearly 45,000 new recruits by June in this fiscal year, but is 10,000 short.
More alarming, Army Guard is authorized by Congress to equip 350,000 soldiers, but is nearly 20,000 understrength.
Still, Guard officials in the District contend that the depleted ranks are 95 percent of strength -- enough to mobilize and deploy on schedule.
"We are able to meet our mission," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a Guard spokesman in Washington.
Rooted in the militias of colonial times, the Guard is a unique institution in the 50 states, territories and the District. Each unit has two commanders in chief -- the state governor, who can call up guardsmen in time of natural and man-made crises, and the president, who can activate troops for a variety of stateside and overseas operations.
"Typically, we're the first military responders in a local emergency," Col. Milord said.
There are nearly 54,000 Guard soldiers and more than 4,000 airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 250 have been killed in those conflicts.
Guard officials say that although some units face retention problems, overall the re-enlistment goal is being exceeded nationwide. It is the challenge of finding new Guardsmen that remains elusive. Part of the problem is that the active Army is growing by 30,000, meaning there are fewer separated soldiers to recruit to switch over to the Guard.
The other part is that young people, because of the probability of being sent to war, are shunning what used to be a lucrative part-time job with benefits such as college tuition aid.
"If you are in the Guard, you will likely be deployed and you're talking anywhere from six months to 18 months right now. In some cases, two years," Col. Milord said. "That's different than what we used to market."
The Guard is battling back by putting more recruiters on the street and opening more storefront stations. But the active Army is doing the same thing.
"All of the services are competing for the same pool of people, and they're competing harder," Col. Milord said.
Maryland's Gen. Tuxill is paying a lot of attention to the Guard's changing culture. His state armories are not immune from the national trend.
Gen. Tuxill, an ex-fighter pilot, said his units faced a retention problem, not because of the war, but because of leadership missteps.
For example, if someone missed a drill in the past, they were punished. Now, when personnel do not show up, commanders inquire about why. If it is a family problem, they try to help the Guardsmen deal with it and still meet commitments.
"Do you want to come back to a friendly unit or come back to where you are going to get hammered?" Gen. Tuxill said.