WASHINGTON (AP) -- Army Spc. Javzailia Pineiro joined New York's National Guard in late 2019, and started work as a truck driver just as the pandemic was starting to hit. For months she drove around the state, spending long days delivering masks, water, food and other supplies.
It was grueling work. Yet she has already signed up for four more years -- taking advantage of a $10,000 reenlistment bonus and the opportunity to use her military benefit to go to college.
Pineiro's decision to stay on is being echoed around the country. State Guard units are seeing dramatic reenlistment rates – despite the exhausting demands the Guard has faced in the past two years dealing with COVID-19, natural disasters and other military deployments.
For some, the Guard provides extra income during uncertain economic times. For others -- like Pineiro -- it's a job that could become a 20-year career, and give her tuition assistance and employment skills that she'll always be able to use. And for many, it's a fulfilling part-time avocation that lets them give back to their communities.
"Since March of 2020, we have had a significant increase in our retention rate," says Army Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, director of the joint staff for the New York National Guard. "We believe that it is because of the impact that our service members have made during this COVID pandemic."
Says Col. Wes Nichols Jr., the Air Guard's deputy director for personnel and recruiting: "The whole idea of neighbors helping neighbors is really inspiring."
"Our airmen have been involved in all types of COVID operations, from testing to vaccinations to working in hospitals to doing the distribution," he says. "In addition, just in 2020 and 2021, we've also been out fighting fires, floods, winter weather, tornado response. When you can engage in those types of activities and help your neighbors, it's meaningful work."
Just ask the Guard members.
For Pineiro, who is from Schenectady, the truck driving job came at the right time. She had just gotten out of her Army Guard training, and didn't have a job, so when the chance for a fulltime COVID mission came up she jumped on it.
"It was a really great opportunity for me, and I'm so happy that I can participate in helping soldiers that I work with and the state with the COVID virus," said Pineiro, who is now moving to a new job on the New York Guard's Homeland Response Force. "I'm doing something good ... a mission that's beneficial to me and millions of people."
In the Midwest, Guard leaders are seeing a similar increase in reenlistments.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Corell, head of the Iowa National Guard, said in an interview that just before he started his job as the state's adjutant general, only a bit more than half of the Army soldiers had opted to reenlist. The rate inched up to 58% the year he started, and as he put a greater effort into it, and as the pandemic took hold, retention jumped to 79% last year.
In the Iowa Air Guard, more than 90% have reenlisted, up a bit over the past several years. He said that as troops get close to their reenlistment dates, they are brought into his headquarters in groups. "We make sure that they've been asked to stay." he said. "And make sure that they understand the benefits that they're walking away from" including tuition assistance
"People enjoy the opportunity to go out and serve their community," he said. "And they look forward to an opportunity to serve the nation as well."
Only two states -- Ohio and California -- did not make or exceed their retention goals for the Army Guard in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, according to National Guard Bureau statistics. That was a dramatic turnaround from 2019, when a only small minority -- just 10 of 54 states and territories -- exceeded their goals.
In total, the Army Guard nationwide retained about 87% of its goal in 2019, and that increased to 102% in 2020, and 116% in 2021. Retention goals differ for each state and are set by the National Guard Bureau. Army Col. Christopher Martindale, chief of human resources for the Army National Guard, said the states' goals have not been lowered and that leaders have been "more aggressive" as part of a broader campaign to keep troops.
The news isn't all positive. Higher retention numbers in the past two years were needed to help offset recruiting shortfalls, as COVID shutdowns have made it more difficult for the military to seek out and enlist young people, especially in schools.
The Air Guard calculates its retention differently from the Army Guard but has seen similar increases. Col. Nashid Salahuddin, chief of the Air Guard's recruiting and retention, said the goal is 90% retention for airmen in each state.
According to totals released by the Guard Bureau, 14 states and others failed to make their 90% retention goals in 2019, but only two -- Washington, D.C., and Virgin Islands -- fell short in 2021. Virgin Islands had just 67 airmen last year, so losing only seven of them led to missing the goal. Nationwide, the Air Guard just made the 90% mission in 2019, but last year retained more than 93%.
Guard leaders said the economy has probably played a role in spurring some service members to reenlist, particularly during the pandemic. But they said for the most part they believe the part-time citizen soldiers and airmen are driven by the desire to give back.
Looking ahead, there are some concerns that the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate c ould hurt recruiting and retention in coming months.
Already Corell said he is hearing that a small number of his Iowa troops will leave to avoid getting the mandatory vaccine. For the most part, he said, those opting out over the vaccine have been in for years and are eligible to retire.
"The reality is that it will affect the retention numbers in the Iowa National Guard, just because there's those that do not wish to be vaccinated," said Corell, noting that eventually those who refuse and don't have an exemption will not be allowed to serve. "We grow people over time, and the potential loss of that experience is concerning to me."