By any measure, Indiana is not a colossal state.
But you would never know it by the size of its National Guard.
With slightly more than 6.5 million people, Indiana ranks 16th in population and is, geographically, the 39th smallest state in the union.
Yet with a strength of 11,633 troops, Indiana has the nation’s fourth largest National Guard.
“That’s an indicator that Hoosiers are pretty darned patriotic and willing to answer the call,” said Lieutenant Colonel John Pitt, manager of the Johnson County Armory in Franklin and Brigade Senior Active Guard Reserve Officer. “We’ve got a lot of Hoosiers willing to answer the call.”
And the call is always going out.
Despite recent troop draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military maintains a constant presence around the globe. Recruiting, as a result, is an ongoing process.
As evidenced by its size, the Indiana National Guard’s efforts are largely successful.
Especially in Johnson County, home to the state’s largest armory.
Master Sergeant Benjamin Fox manages recruiting at nine Indiana armories, including the Franklin facility, which is also nation’s fourth largest. Four recruiters work there full time, with an ongoing mission of drawing men and women to the ranks.
“We conduct a lot events throughout the community,” said Fox, who oversees recruiting in 16 southern Indiana counties. “The National Guard has been around since 1636, so we kind of have recruiting figured out.”
Some recruiting tools, such as visiting high schools and county fairs, are traditional. Others, such as a series of special events at Camp Atterbury, are not.
The latter are especially popular.
On Saturday, for example, the Guard conducted its latest “Bring Your Buddy To Drill Day,” where soldiers invite prospective recruits to Atterbury to participate in various military exercises, such as rappelling, boot camp challenges and obstacle courses.
Performed under the close supervision of experts, the activities are designed to give would-be recruits a hands-on taste of military challenges.
“We do some stuff that normally civilians wouldn’t get the opportunity to experience,” Pitt said. “The intent is to start the conversation.”
Typically, the conversation starts with the educational and financial benefits, such as job training and money for college. But it is enhanced by the chance to perform physical challenges, such as Saturday’s event, that teach prospective recruits something they might not have known about themselves.
“If I can rappel down a 60-foot tower, if I can do something like, well, think about what else you didn’t know you had in you,” Pitt said. “It’s to generate interest and let them know about the opportunities for service but then also (complements) the features and the benefits.”
Staff sergeant Chris May is a Franklin Community High School graduate. He is also the Indiana National Guard’s No. 1 recruiter, having enlisted about 50 recruits in the past 18 months.
A Franklin resident, May regards events such as “Bring Your Buddy to Drill Day” as an ideal way to show prospective recruits what serving in the National Guard is all about.
“It’s not necessarily always going out to domestic issues and state emergencies,” May said. “It’s meeting people, having fun, being around like-minded people and really becoming a better person.
“That’s what pays off in the National Guard.”
Shelby Hooton, 17 and a senior at Center Grove High School, was one Saturday’s 50-plus participants and plans to enlist in the next two weeks.
Her experience on drill day only heightened her enthusiasm.
“I love it. It’s really exciting,” Hooton said. “Ever since I was little I felt it was my duty as a citizen to be in the military.
“I just never knew what branch was right for me, and then I looked to the National Guard, and it’s got everything I’m looking for, college and benefits.”
Robert Skirvin, an 18-year-old Greenwood Community High School graduate, also participated Saturday but didn’t need selling. He enlisted in June and is getting ready for basic training.
“I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do in the future, and I also was very concerned about the college funding,” Skirvin said. “I heard all the benefits about this, and it pretty much set everything straight.”
Benefits of joining the National Guard include specialized job training that can lead to high-paying jobs, such as land surveying and heavy equipment operation; a monthly paycheck; low-cost health and life insurance; Indiana tax credits; retirement benefits; and perhaps most importantly, the chance to answer a calling.
“About half the people who enlist, the main reason they want to join is they want to serve their country,” Fox said. “When we step outside and we breathe in that fresh air, that’s because of soldiers. Our fresh air here is not like the fresh air in Iraq or Afghanistan or Korea or wherever. We have fresh air here, and it’s because of the soldiers who wear this uniform.
“They want to feel that. They want to help protect their brother and sister, so that’s the biggest reason.”
Although National Guard units can be mobilized for military service at any time by presidential order, state guards are commanded by their respective state governors. When not deployed, soldiers serve part-time within their own state, with a primary mission of tornado, flood and hurricane response and riot control.
“A lot of people don’t realize what the Indiana National Guard really is and what we do,” Fox said. “They think they’re going straight to Iraq or Afghanistan. They don’t understand we’re state missions.
“These soldiers only have to do one weekend a month and two weeks a summer.”
Locally, recruiting is strong. Between May and October of last year, 29 percent of all county residents who enlisted in the military joined Indiana National Guard.
Most recruits range in age from 17 to 24. And all have the opportunity, as citizen soldiers, to learn invaluable job skills, pay for college and serve their country.
“You’re going to come out of basic training more physically fit and mentally resilient than you’ve ever been in your whole life,” Pitt said. “You’re going to be more confident, you’re going to be more competent, you’re going to learn army war tasks, you’re going to have very targeted job skill training. You have opportunities to go to airborne, air assault, ranger school.
“You get an opportunity to do something more with your life than you ever would if you had not joined the military. That has been my experience.”