SEARCY -- Kicking off a yearlong campaign to reconnect military veterans and bolster recruitment, representatives of the Arkansas National Guard and veterans assembled Tuesday morning for the inaugural "All Services Roll Call" event.
Led by Maj. Gen. Jon Stubbs, adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard, the event at the guard's armory in Searcy provided about 20 veterans and at least one potential recruit with updates on the status of the guard, recruitment numbers and various resources available to veterans.
The armory is home to the Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry.
"This is our first opportunity to gather together and to establish or re-establish contact with our retiree and veteran community," Stubbs told those in attendance at the armory's drill hall. "And it's important that we do this as the Arkansas National Guard as your hometown force for good within the state."
Statistics about the current status of the Arkansas National Guard were delivered via a short video presentation and by officials from the Army and Air National Guard.
According to the video, the state provided $4.1 million, or 0.4% of the guard's operational budget, for active-duty missions, while the statewide economic impact of the guard was tabulated at $588 million.
In White County, home to 256 guard members in 2022, the economic impact was measured at roughly $5.1 million in fiscal 2021, according to materials provided at the event.
The 188th Wing, based in Fort Smith, flew 260 federal missions on nearly 300 targets supporting three combatant commands, according to the video.
Paul Jara, director of staff for the Arkansas Air National Guard, gave attendees insight into the 189th Airlift Wing, including its cyber operations squadron and the transition to the new model of C-130J Super Hercules transport planes.
"If you can imagine getting a 1969 Ford Mustang press and pressing out a brand-new airplane -- the J model is as new as an airplane that you build right now," Jara said.
"It's got computerized flight control systems. It's got head's-up displays, brand-new engines. It's essentially a brand-new airplane, but with that same C-130 model and look."
Lt. Col. Kevin Cox, deputy chief of staff for operations for the Army National Guard, spoke about the Army National Guard recruitment and missions.
"Our force structure in the guard, Army side, 6,700 soldiers [are based] in the state of Arkansas right now," Cox said. "We have an attrition rate of about 12%, which says we're losing about 800 soldiers a year because they're at the end of their service. They've done their full contract and they need to move on, and we need to replace those soldiers from time to time."
Of those 6,700 guard members, about 700 are stationed abroad -- including more than 160 from Camp Robinson's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, who are stationed in Germany training Ukrainian soldiers.
Cox said 57 members of the 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment are returning to Arkansas this week after serving abroad for 10 months as part of a medical evacuation mission with Central Command.
Members of the 87th Engineer Battalion out 0f Jonesboro are at the southwest border, said Cox, where they are "overseeing the command control" that is "working with the migrants and everyone else moving in from Central America and trying to come into the USA."
Cox said Arkansas and Utah had been chosen as a location for a new extended-range cannon artillery.
"That is a huge asset that's going into Fort Chaffee [near Fort Smith] and the Arkansas National Guard was selected due to its readiness level, its professionalism, everything else to be the very first in the nation to field that system," Cox said. "It will be the longest-range modern cannon artillery that the United States Army has."
Cox added later that the system wouldn't arrive in the state until 2027.
A National Guard spokesperson said Arkansas' 12% retention rate was "middle-of-the-pack" compared with the country's other 49 states, three territories and Washington, D.C.
Addressing recruitment, Cox said the Army National Guard hopes to raise the number of guard members in the state from 6,700 to 7,000 in the next few years.
"We need about 800 [new] soldiers a year," Cox told attendees. "We're hitting about half of that for the last two years coming out the covid environment. We're really behind. We're at about 99% strength today. And without your assistance, I just don't have hope that we're going to be able to get back to that 105% strength that we've routinely been able to hold down."
After the presentation, Lt. Col. Clint Miller, the Arkansas Army National Guard's recruiting and retention battalion commander, addressed some of the hurdles for recruiting, including having missed out on two years of in-person recruiting at schools because of covid-19.
"We're running about the average attrition number across the country," Miller said. "The problem that we're having is on the front side, getting the youth educated about the military again. ... The problem of retention is if you don't get them in the front side, it becomes like a hard mortgage at some point. A lot of the guys that are retiring now are the ones that joined during the 9/11 time frame."
In March, which marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the Arkansas National Guard said that of the men and women who made up its ranks in March 2003, 830 were still in uniform. That represents 10% of its roughly 8,500-person force.
When it comes to recruiting younger soldiers, Miller pointed to medical issues as being a roadblock.
"There's new medical processes that have come into play on the screening criteria for people who want to join. There's a whole gamut," Miller said.
Medical hurdles include recruits with obesity and those who take Ritalin and other medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
While someone who takes ADHD medication can enlist, Miller said, "the young person may have to be off of it for 18 months before they can join. A young person changes their mind a lot in 18 months."
Also present at the Searcy event were multiple organizations and National Guard departments, described by Stubbs as aimed at helping veterans with "respect to financial well-being, spiritual well-being, physical well-being."
That included the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, VETCenter and the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Roll Call" events will be held once a month at local National Guard armories through June 2024.
Revised from its original announcement, the events will take place at:
Malvern on June 27, Jonesboro on July 25, Bentonville on Aug. 22, Harrison on Sept. 26, Conway on Oct. 24, Fort Smith at Ebbing Air Force Base on Nov. 28, El Dorado on Jan. 23, Hot Springs on Feb. 27, Texarkana on March 26, West Memphis on April 23, Russellville on May 21 and Camden on June 25, 2024.