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SD National Guard adapts to keep rolling amid pandemic

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Members of the South Dakota Army National Guard participate in drills during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of SDARNG)
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RAPID CITY -- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, military members experienced a COVID-19 hospitalization rate 50 times higher than the rest of the country during the early stages of the pandemic.

But duty still beckoned.

The South Dakota Army Reserve/National Guard hit a wall in March just like the rest of the country, but rather than completely shutting down operations, they have been altered slightly. Full-time employees and essential workers were the lone personnel to be admitted on bases, while in-person meetings were limited to small groups or through teleconferences.

April and May saw the SDARNG complete its monthly service drills virtually, but what has taken an adjustment period is recruiting. Recruiting has dipped because of shutdowns and social distancing, which means new tactics to find enlistees.

“Our missions don’t stop, we’ve always got to be ready to support our state and federal missions,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Deiss, director of public affairs for the South Dakota Army National Guard. “… With COVID-19, we lost access to our largest recruiting population, which is the high school students and some of the college students with school closures, sporting events and other activities where our recruiters are able to meet and get some face-to-face interactions.”

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Shutdowns have wiped out opportunities to reach the Guard’s No. 1 recruiting target: high school students. The SDARNG has a strong relationship with the South Dakota High School Activities Association, which allows recruiters to interact with prospects face-to-face. There are similar relationships with colleges around the state.

Those interactions have led to a slight dip in enlistment numbers for South Dakota -- which is one of the top states nation for retention numbers for the Guard, according to Deiss -- but recruiters still managed to hit nearly 90 percent of its target goal.

This year’s recruiting mission for the SDARNG is to reach a total of 320 new enlistees or enlist 27 per month. Deiss says the number is around 205 now, but recruiters expect to make up ground as the state opens up this summer.

To maintain progress, the SDARNG not only shifted to virtual drills, but virtual recruiting, with a major presence on social media as a substitute for in-person interaction at events. One of those virtual events included a partnership with Dakota State University for an online gaming competition in an attempt to engage with potential recruits.

“We’ve had to rely on a social media presence or referrals for new prospects,” Deiss said. “We try to communicate more through cell phones and apps. Recruiters are leveraging social media platforms to reach those potential recruits. We’ve also done some Facebook Live events to talk about benefits to serving, as well as give potential recruits to ask questions in an online forum.”

Shipment goes unchanged for enlistees

Those already enlisted saw little change to the policies as the SDARNG was able to fulfill ship-out dates for Guardsmen heading to basic training or advanced individual training.

The United States Department of Defense and the CDC issued guidelines, which includes run-of-the-mill tactics such as social distancing and washing hands. Although social distancing is difficult in such situations, leading to a 2 percent hospitalization rate.

“We’ve been able to ship recruits that have actively signed up to basic training, or after they complete basic, they go on to advanced individual training,” Deiss said. “A lot of our high school juniors will do a split option, where during the first summer they’ll go to basic training, come back home, and then the following summer, they’ll do their advanced individual training. There’s been relatively little impact on shipping our recruits to those active duty basic duty or AIT locations.”

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In May, the Pentagon issued a policy that prevented recruits that tested positive for COVID-19 from enlisting or being commissioned into a branch of the military. Later in the month, the all-out ban was rescinded. Now, recruits are being assessed on a case-by-case basis while health care professionals find a more detailed solution.

Deiss said the SDARNG is still awaiting word on whether to ship such cases to basic training or AIT, but they would be placed in a special program designed by the National Guard Bureau for enlistees that must delay shipment for various reasons.

“We’re not to ship them, but we’re still waiting for guidance as to whether they’ll be able to complete their training or not,” Deiss said. “The NGB has a delayed shippers program, so we can put people in a status like that until they’re ready to ship. There’s various reasons why they might be delayed, but anybody with a COVID-related illness would be in that.”

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