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Guard counters tradition with full ranks amid economic boom

February 5, 2018 Updated: February 5, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Maj. Gen Michael Loh, The Adjutant General, Colorado National Guard, visits the 169th Field Artillery Brigade in Southwest Asia.

Booming economies have traditionally hammered military recruiting as would-be troops shun the services for well-paid civilian jobs.

It's a problem only exacerbated by war, with the prospect of combat giving recruits another reason to steer clear. So why is Colorado National Guard boss Maj. Gen Mike Loh smiling?

"Recruiting and retention has really never been better, and part of it is because of that booming economy," Loh said last week.

On the job nine months, Loh is preparing the state's part-time soldiers and airmen for wartime missions overseas in 2019. He's fighting the Pentagon to keep a Colorado Springs squadron while working with Air Force Space Command to stand up a new space control squadron that will keep its eyes on the heavens.

The counterintuitive news on Guard recruiting, Loh said, is driven by an influx of part-time troops from other states who are seeking the Colorado lifestyle along with easily available civilian jobs. Colorado, with a jobless rate of 2.7 percent, is a destination.

"Unemployment within the guard is 1.7 percent," Loh said.

Every Colorado Guard unit, with the exception of the brand-new space squadron, has a full complement of troops or even a few to spare.

That's especially surprising for the Guard's 140th Fighter Wing in Aurora, which has defied the Air Force's widening pilot shortage - with a national deficit now estimated at 1,500 pilots.

"It's part of Colorado and what's going on in terms of quality of life," Loh said.

In addition to the Rocky Mountain lifestyle, Loh also credited moves by the Colorado General Assembly to improve job prospects for military spouses and education benefits, which help young troops counter skyrocketing college costs.

"You have an education that's pretty much paid for and skills employers like," Loh said.

With his rosters filled, Loh is worrying about getting his troops ready for war.

While specifics have not been released, the general said Colorado is preparing to send a large contingent of troops overseas in 2019.

"We have almost a third of our force ... scheduled to deploy," he said.

Loh said the Guard is focused on individual and unit training to get the Guardsmen combat-ready while preparing them to work with other teams from across the military.

The biggest item on Loh's agenda for the moment is standing up the Colorado Guard's first space control squadron. The new 100-airman unit will be housed at Peterson Air Force Base where its troops will work alongside active-duty counterparts to watch objects in orbit.

The unit's task is called "space situational awareness," and it is seen as an increasingly crucial field as nations from China and Russia to North Korea and Iran increase their anti-satellite capabilities.

The new squadron has a commanding officer, and the staff is getting filled in. Loh said he had a dozen applications for three open officer jobs in the new unit.

While Loh is adding troops, he's also fighting a subtraction. The Air Force has threatened to shut down the Guard's 200th Airlift Squadron in Colorado Springs. Loh is battling the move through Pentagon channels and is waiting to hear from Air Force leaders on alternatives to the shutdown.

Loh said the award-winning unit can accomplish the tasks of full-time troops at a fraction of the cost.

"The 200th is that elegant squadron," he said.

While the general spends much of his time focusing on part-time troops, Colorado's Guard is loaded with full-time missions. Colorado is home to the Guard's 100th Missile Defense Brigade, which is responsible for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles midflight.

With recent missile and nuclear tests in North Korea making headlines, the 100th's operations at Schriever Air Force Base has been in the spotlight, Loh said.

"In the last year and a half, we have had more distinguished visitors out there," Loh said.

The 140th Fighter Wing is getting new tools for its F-16 fighters to accomplish its full-time mission. Loh said the unit's F-16s are due for upgraded radar systems that will help them track and intercept stealthy targets.

That will be a bonus for a unit that has crew on alert 24 hours a day to protect airspace from the Canadian border to New Mexico.

Despite the hectic pace, high morale in the Colorado Guard has left Loh with a strange problem.

While most military units are struggling to keep people in uniform, Loh is trying to get long-timers to hang theirs up.

With Guardsmen staying in the ranks long past the traditional military retirement stage, Loh is having to tell a few of his older troops that they need to go.

"You served 30-plus years, and it is a young person's career path," he said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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