MINNEAPOLIS — War weary after 11 years of combat, the U.S. military is retooling, rebalancing and retraining, drawing down its forces and facing massive budget cuts for the first time in years.
As the active duty reduces its numbers, the country’s reserve force will be asked to do more, and do it with less.
The Pentagon has been ordered to slash its budget by $487 billion over the next decade, cuts that will change the face of the modern American military.
In Minnesota, the 13,000-member Minnesota Guard will be most visibly affected by the changes.
The Guard’s weekend warriors essentially will be put on permanent alert status — a future that could include serving more frequently or for longer periods of time.
“You just never know what’s going to happen in the future," said Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Major John Schwartz, whose team in south central Minnesota was the state’s top recruiters this year. “There are wars going on and we’re here to fight them."
Preparing for this new reality includes a renewed focus by the Guard on recruiting new soldiers and caring for its members who have come home damaged.
As the active duty Army is reduced, the National Guard is expected to remain at about its current 358,000 soldiers or face only slight reductions. The Minnesota Guard is expected to reduce its mission strength by only 55 soldiers next year.
The Guard often had a waiting list last year and said it can afford to be selective. “The situation in Minnesota today is that there are more Minnesotans who want to serve than we have force structure for," said Lt. Col. Stephen Burggraff, commander of the Minnesota Guard’s recruitment and retention battalion.
Particularly in Minnesota, where the Guard dominates: Nearly half of those who enlist in the military in the state sign up with the Minnesota Guard.
“We are the military people affiliate with and watch," said Col. Jon Jensen, chief of staff for Minnesota’s top general. Still, the Guard must constantly replenish its ranks at one end of its force to address retirements at the other.
The Minnesota Guard spends $4 million a year on recruiting and marketing, much of it as sophisticated and subliminal as any corporate branding campaign.
They still make time-tested trips — gear and all — to high schools around the state, setting up climbing walls and obstacle courses. But they also bring the traveling Army Adventure Van, with its computer-simulated battlefield scenes, to a generation brought up on video games.
They’ve spent more than $1.4 million over the past three years to advertise with the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Wild.
Besides massive billboards hanging outside Mall of America Field, the Guard sponsors a day in which football players and coaches from across the state are brought in for one-on mentoring with Vikings personnel. They discuss tying physical fitness and nutrition to good citizenship and lifestyle skills that just might include joining the military.
The Guard has also focused on improving the diversity in its ranks, particularly among Hispanics.