ARLINGTON, Va., (July 10, 2009) -- The Army National Guard is changing recruiting policies to lower its end strength by the end of the fiscal year, Guard officials said today.

These changes will enable the Army Guard to decrease its end strength from 362,493 Soldiers to a congressionally-mandated force of 358,200 by Sept. 30.

"When you go from a growth mode to a contraction mode, it takes six to eight months to get everybody to move toward reduction," said Col. Michael Jones, commander of Army National Guard Strength Command.

The Army National Guard implemented many recruiting initiatives to grow from 330,000 in June 2005 to more than 362,000 in 2008.

Increasing bonuses as well as the number of recruiters, and programs, such as the Guard Recruiting Assistance Program or G-RAP, which pays $1,000 to Guard members for referring someone who enlists and $1,000 when they ship to basic training, made the difference.

The Army Guard grew by 18,800 members over two fiscal years, an unprecedented growth since the draft era, Jones said.

To adjust this year, the Army Guard is making changes that will affect both Soldiers coming into the Guard and those transitioning out.

"We're tightening up the criteria it takes to qualify to come into the National Guard," said Jones.

For those enlisting in the Army Guard, the enlistment age is being lowered to 35 years of age from 42. Medical and bad conduct waivers will not be granted to new enlistees, and enlistment and retention bonuses will be eliminated for all Soldiers currently not serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Army Guard is also making it easier for Soldiers to leave.

"The discharge process was a little bit cumbersome and a little bit lengthy, so we've streamlined that," said Jones.

Finally, Soldiers who fail to ship to basic training within 12 months will be discharged.

"We need to have (Soldiers) qualified now," Jones said. "If they can't get qualified now, we need to move them out of our end strength."

Even in a scaled-back recruiting environment, however, there are still some highly sought-after vacancies that need to be filled. The Army Guard will shift its focus to officer and warrant officer recruiting and encourage current enlisted members to consider these options.

These measures have had the desired effect on end strength. For the past 12 weeks, the Army Guard's end strength has steadily declined by about 500 Soldiers a week.

The trend has Jones feeling optimistic about reaching the goal. "We'll get to 358,000," he said. "Not a problem."

The Department of Defense announced the recruiting numbers for June today. The Army National Guard fell short of its mark, recruiting 84 percent of its goal to add 3,209 Soldiers, while the Air National Guard had 867 accessions with a goal of 810, for 107 percent.

(Army Staff Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum writes for the National Guard Bureau.)