The National Guard has lost about 7,500 members over the past year, and the ranks could dwindle even more because of potential future discharges of as many as 14,000 more troops amid the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to reports.
The troop loss is due to more soldiers retiring or leaving the National Guard than are being added, officials told The Associated Press. They have cited challenges in recruiting, as well as how more soldiers are deciding against reenlisting when their tours of duty end.
Army National Guard chief of staff Maj. Gen. Rich Baldwin told the AP that the current staffing challenges are the worst he has seen in the past 20 years.
Both the Army National Guard and Air National Guard have fallen short of their targets for the total number of service members in the fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, with the former missing its goal of 336,000 by about 2 percent, and the latter missing its goal of 108,300 by nearly 3 percent, Baldwin said.
While the current effect on the National Guard’s readiness is “minimal and manageable,” if recruiting and retention challenges can’t be solved, “[they] will see readiness issues related to strength begin to emerge within [their] units within the next year or two,” he told the news agency.
Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters during a call on Sept. 20 (pdf) that many recruiters have told him they are facing “unprecedented” challenges in their roles.
“If you look at last year and the years prior to that, we have always met our authorized end strength and it’s probably due to a myriad of factors that affect all services,” he said of the challenges in recruitment and retention.
Hokanson noted that the military could be losing potential recruits due to a strong civilian job market. He also said that recent statistics show that “only 23 percent of what [they] consider primary military, age 18 to 24, even meet the requirements to join the U.S. military.”
In addition to pressure with recruitment and retention, the Army National Guard is projecting a loss of as many as 14,000 soldiers across the country over the next two years because of refusals to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Specifically, Anson D. Smith, the deputy chief of the Army National Guard Strength Maintenance Division, told reporters on Sept. 20 that a loss of about 9,000 soldiers is projected in fiscal year 2023 and another 5,000 soldiers in fiscal 2024.
So far, no National Guard members have been discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, because the Guard is awaiting instructions from the Army on how to proceed. Officials have said it isn’t clear when they will get that guidance.
“Right now, we haven’t had any discharges because of COVID, because we still, again, are waiting on the phase two memorandum from the secretary of the Army before we get into who will be discharged based off refusals” to take the COVID vaccine, Smith told reporters.
Smith said the 9,000 figure is “based on the numbers that [they] have of refusals.” Recent data from the U.S. Army published in mid-September showed that 9,835 Army National Guard members have refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The losses in the Army National Guard reflect a broader situation across the U.S. military. While the U.S. Army was the only active service branch not to meet its recruiting target this year, all the other active armed services have struggled to meet their targets and have needed to seek recruits from their delayed entry program pools, which will put them behind next year’s recruiting goals.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.