NEW ORLEANS – Seven Soldiers stood on stage at the award ceremony, waiting to hear who had taken top honors. A drum roll built suspense in the darkened room as audience members shifted in their seats.
The drumming reached a crescendo as Master Sgt. Christopher Sehy was named the winner to cheers and applause.
As he stepped across the stage, he was unexpectedly met by his wife, Crystal, who had rushed onstage to hug and congratulate her husband for being the Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
“I was a bit surprised when they called my name,” said Sehy, a recruiter with the Utah Army National Guard. “It’s a very humbling honor and it means a lot.”
The March 23 awards program was the culminating event of the annual Director of the Army National Guard’s Strength Maintenance Awards and Conference, where recruiting team chiefs and top Army Guard recruiters network, exchange ideas and focus on ever-evolving recruiting challenges.
“This is an opportunity to bring in the top recruiters and section leaders or section chiefs into one forum,” said Master Sgt. Anthony Vaughn, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the conference and the Recruit Sustainment Program NCOIC in the Army Guard Strength Maintenance Division at the National Guard Bureau. “Then you also have training that’s going to be disseminated out to the field.”
As the Army Guard rebounds from a year of lower enlistment rates, the conference focused on synchronizing efforts, said Vaughn.
“Right now, we’re in one of the most difficult recruiting environments we’ve been in in a very long time,” he said of all the service branches and components. “We’re trying to figure out ways to increase accessions through recruiting.”
The crosstalk and training help, enabling recruiters in one state to talk with and bounce ideas off those in other states.
“Recruiting, it does vary based upon that local environment,” said Vaughn. “All in all, it’s a science and an art. So, recruiters in all the states can come in and kind of deliver their pieces of the pie, if you will.”
The conference allowed recruiters to “hear those best practices and think about things outside the box that they possibly aren’t doing in their particular state” that they can adapt to fit their mission.
“The intent is that they take all the knowledge that they’ll learn and disseminate that back out [to other recruiters at home station],” said Vaughn. “They can say, ‘This is something that I learned, and this can help posture us for future success.’”
He said drawing on those ideas and applying them while mentoring others in their command makes for a good recruiter, or — as they are officially known — a recruiting and retention noncommissioned officer.
“A good recruiter, that’s someone who is not going to forget the second half of the title — NCO,” he said.
“They’re the ones that do not forget when they were that applicant going to see their recruiter and the process they may have gone through,” said Vaughn. “They’re the ones who follow up and are always ready to answer any follow-on questions, even long after that individual went from being a prospect to an applicant, to being at basic training and then back into a unit as a Soldier.”
“The biggest thing is, it just starts with doing the work,” he said. “Every day, you’ve got to come to work and be present and engaged.”
It’s hard but rewarding work, Sehy said.
“The best part about being a recruiter is you have an opportunity to change the course of someone’s life,” he said.
“My little brother, he’s done 10 years in prison,” he said. “We grew up in the same place; we just took different paths. And for me, every time I talk with a young man or young woman, I don’t take that for granted. Because I look at what it’s done for my life.”
The conference helps recruiters work with recruits and applicants seeking to make the “life-changing” decision to enlist.
“We take a needs analysis of the field, as far as what we need to hone in on,” said Vaughn of the conference planning. In addition to recruiters, that analysis includes input from the Army Guard Strength Maintenance Division and broader Army recruiting efforts.
“Those topics change from year to year,” said Vaughn. “But again, they’re based upon the needs of the field. So that’s where here, as a division, we make sure that we meet that need.”
The intent is to increase the abilities of recruiting teams in the 54 — all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia, said Vaughn.
Recruiting often comes down to making connections within the recruiting career field and with potential recruits, Sehy said. That can sometimes mean calling a lot of possible applicants.
“One of my mottos is 20 minutes of cold calls a day keeps the sergeant major away,” he said, referring to the senior NCO overseeing recruiting teams. “If you’re willing to put in just 20 minutes a day, you’ll be able to get something out of it at some point.”
But rejection can be tough, said Sehy.
“You’ve got to have that personal courage to continue to make those calls, to go to that school or community event to meet people who may be interested.”
But seeing the changes in those he’s enlisted makes it worth it.
“They leave for training looking a certain way,” he said. “Then to see them come back, they’re usually skinnier, in better physical condition and they’re more confident,” he said. “It’s really rewarding when you get a thank you. Sometimes it’s from someone that you didn’t really know appreciated you at all. That means the world and makes another 400 cold calls worth it.”