SALEM — This year, more Oregon Army National Guard soldiers will head for war than at any time since World War II. And more people are signing up and re-enlisting than ever.

SALEM — This year, more Oregon Army National Guard soldiers will head for war than at any time since World War II. And more people are signing up and re-enlisting than ever.

The recruiting climate over the past five years had been the worst since the draft was ended in 1972, but as college prices and unemployment rise, more Oregonians are taking a closer look at the Guard.

At the same time, the Guard is taking a closer look at would-be recruits.

It can be pickier than usual.

Oregon posted a record-high number of recruits in February as enlistments also rose nationally. The Oregon Guard also led all states for re-enlistments last month, with 208 soldiers re-upping.

Interest is such that the National Guard is barring entire categories of applicants including those with felonies, face and neck tattoos and most applicants older than 35.

It is looking for people with high test scores.

"Three years ago, we had more challenges than we do today," said Maj. Cary Miller, Oregon's acting head of recruiting. "The economy is helping us."

Nationally, the Army hit its recruitment goal for the first time since October 2003.

The National Guard has been able to slice re-enlistment bonuses from $20,000 to $10,000. That boosted Oregon's February numbers as soldiers re-enlisted before the figure dropped.

The increases in enlistments and re-enlistments has permitted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to end the unpopular stop-loss program that forces soldiers to serve beyond their scheduled discharge.

That becomes effective in September, too late for the 3,000 Oregon Guard members headed to Iraq this summer.

Critics fear the economy may lead people into the military who don't belong there.

"We call it the poverty draft, where people are technically volunteers but are actually people who don't have a lot of other choices, " said John Grueschow of Recruiter Watch, PDX, a nonprofit military recruitment watchdog.

"We want people to know about other options, like apprenticeships or scholarships."

It isn't all that easy to get in.

This month Curtis Gilroy of the Defense Department told Congress that only 15 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are available because of college, physical problems and drug, alcohol or crime problems. Others failed to finish high school.

Still, Oregon Guard recruiter Staff Sgt. Matthew McCreery has seen "a lot more people coming through my door."

But, he says, that makes it harder on the recruiters. "There is a stereotype that we'll take anybody, and that's not true." In 2008, McCreery was the Oregon Guard's top recruiter and No. 2 in the nation. His numbers were up 253 percent over 2007.

His secret? Get to know potential recruits and stay as connected to them as possible for as long as possible. And, he said, recognize that the job is not about money or security, but about the strong desire to serve.

"You see people who are not signing up because of the hard times, but because they want to serve their country and Oregon. They're looking for other people who feel the same way.

"That's the main reason we're doing so well."

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Information from: The Oregonian, http:www.oregonlive.com