HELENA (AP) - Montana enlistments in the Army National Guard have jumped 26 percent over last year, and the Air National Guard is on pace to top its banner year of 2001, top Guard officials report.
The surge comes after a slump for both branches last year.
The bloody battles in Iraq and the extended deployment of troops there not only are not discouraging signups, but may be helping, said Lt. Col. Steve Martinka, recruiting and retention manager with the Montana Army National Guard.
Some people are joining precisely for the opportunity to serve in Iraq, he said. Several Montana Army National Guard units are on alert for deployment, and Martinka is expecting a bump in enlistments of people who want to go there.
Both Martinka and Maj. Tim Lincoln of the Air National Guard in Great Falls said recruitment tumbled last year but has surged in the past six months.
In the six months between October 2002 and March 2003, 168 people joined the Montana Army National Guard. In the same period this fiscal year, 212 people enlisted, an increase of 26.2 percent.
The Montana Air National Guard counted 110 enlistments a big success in its 2001 fiscal year. That dropped to 92 the next year and to only 77 last year. This year, Lincoln said, recruitment is slightly ahead of the brisk pace of 2001.
''We saw our numbers drop off after 9-11,'' he said. ''This year, they picked up.''
Lincoln and Martinka said both branches had turmoil in their recruiting staff that accounted for some of last year's declines.
''Last year was one of our worst recruiting years,'' Martinka said.
The war in Iraq was also new, he said, which may have dissuaded recruits. But this year people seem more comfortable with the possibility of combat.
''They understand that if you join the guard now, you may possibly be deployed,'' Martinka said.
Both men said several factors could account for the surge. Montana has historically high enlistment rates, the Guard is still a way to help pay for college, and the economy is struggling.
''We're just a unique state,'' Martinka said, ''and college isn't getting any cheaper.''
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week extended one-year tours of duty for about 21,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 6,000 Reserve and National Guard members.
The Montana Army National Guard has a ''stop-loss'' order in effect for members of units that have been alerted about possible deployment, said Maj. Scott Smith, its public affairs officer. That prevents them from leaving even if their commitment is up.
Guardsmen returning home from Iraq are also prohibited from leaving the Guard for 90 days. That order was put in place not to shore up the ranks, Smith said, but to make sure returning soldiers don't ignore medical problems resulting from their service in haste to return to civilian life.