Tennessee National Guard Staff Sgt. Donna Walker stood casually in front of an agriculture class Friday at Loudon High School, talking to students as if they were old friends.
In some ways, they are.
Walker, who has been in the National Guard for 13 years and a recruiter the last two, frequents the county’s high schools to build relationships.
“I try to change it up like every two or three months,” she said. “I start seeing the same kids over and over, and they’re like, ‘We just heard this,’ so I try to make it different or play a game and show them different aspects of it and not just, ‘Here’s what we offer and join the Guard. Bye.’ That gets really old, and they get over it real quick. Even if they want to, they’re like, ‘We’ve already heard this’.”
Despite the effort, Walker has noticed a decline in student interest. She attributes the drop to cultural changes.
“Honestly, I think it’s slowing down,” she said. “Obviously, I feel pretty new to it in the last two and a half years, so the demographics haven’t changed much for me since I started, but I think that because there’s not the need to serve like there was after Sept. 11, kids now are raised a little differently where patriotism is not gone, but it’s not a front runner, instilled in children, stuff like that.
“Before 9/11 happened, then we had a huge splurge to enlist,” she added. “Everybody was trying to get in and fight for their country. Obviously, that was so long ago now. Especially with these kids, they were either very young or not even born yet, some of them, so they don’t have that. When they do serve now, it is usually, in my experience, have enlisted in the last two and a half years is for the benefits, for the college money. We also do a sign-on bonus. It just depends on what, but they stay for patriotism once they’re in, but a lot of them stay for the benefits up front.”
Walker has recruited four students from Loudon High School and one from Lenoir City High School.
The hope is to draw students with benefits, but an understandable prerequisite lies in a deep-rooted patriotism.
“Across the board, I think all military branches recruit the same way in a sense,” Walker said. “First and foremost, we do try to recruit to that patriotism and the need to serve. We do, what are our benefits, how can this benefit you? They don’t really change the way we recruit necessarily, but what they do is they offer additional incentives. For instance, a $20,000 sign-on bonus is not always an option. It is currently because our numbers are low. They do things like that to try to entice people more. Unfortunately, the monetary stuff is what gets these people. They may have some small will to serve, but this kind of — oh, there’s $20,000, so now they’re going to do it. I think those incentives kind of help push them over the edge to I do want to serve, but now I can get $20,000 and do it at the perfect time.
“I don’t think you can take anybody off the street and recruit them that has no desire at all, regardless of what I tell you,” she added. “If I tell you I’ll give you a million dollars to be in the military, even part time, if you have no desire to serve, you’re not going to do it, regardless of what I offer you. I do think there is some little bit of service there. They just need more to actually follow through with it.”
Pfc. Joshua Campbell, a 2018 LHS graduate, was influenced by a mixture of patriotism and a strong work ethic.
“I knew from a young age I wanted to go military pretty strong,” Campbell said. “It’s in my family. Growing up in that kind of environment, that’s pretty much why I wanted to enlist. I didn’t really know what branch or anything I wanted to do specifically. My friend, Ryan, he was in the National Guard before I was, and he told me about all of the scholarships he got over at Tennessee (Technological University). That really helps him out, so I thought I would follow him down the same path, so I talked to Sgt. Walker about it.”
High school students are often the target audience as big decisions loom, especially for seniors. Campbell hopes to attend Maryville College after he returns from deployment in February 2021.
Walker’s spiel of benefits was also a determining factor for Campbell to join.
“For my specific (military occupational specialty), I chose military police, and I got a $20,000 sign-on bonus, so that’s pretty nice,” Campbell said. “They told me about the Tennessee (Support, Training and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act, which pretty much pays for my bachelor’s degree in college, which is really nice.
“I’m eligible for TRICARE,” he added. “It’s not free, like active duty Army, but if you go in the National Guard, it’s like $40 a month and $211 for dependents.”
A common issue is some soldiers may not use the college benefits, leaving them partially jobless and frustrated.
“What happens sometimes is soldiers come back and they don’t start college,” she said. “They just sit around, and then they’re no better off than they were because you have to use the benefits. You have to use this job skill that you learned and then go apply for a good job. You have to go to college. You have to go to trade school. You have to follow through with that next step. If that happens, great.”
Though recruitment fixates on high-schoolers, Walker has noticed an increase in older adults willing to start a military career due to job training, scholarships and benefits.
“A lot of mine have actually been older adults who are in the 25-30 range who are like, ‘Oh yeah, you were right 10 years ago when I was in high school, but I wasn’t ready to do it then’,” she said.