Nov. 11—SIOUX CITY — Pitching young men and women on the merits of joining a military branch always has its challenges, and that's even more true when recruiters are seeking to line up newbies with less face-to-face contact during a time of novel coronavirus spread.

"The military (ethic) in general has taught us to adapt and overcome," so working towards recruiting goals during a pandemic is par for the course, Jerry Anderson, recruiting flight chief for the 185th Iowa Air National Guard Air Refueling Wing, said Monday, as the annual Veterans Day week began.

"We were able to figure out a way for the (recruiting) mission to be successful," Anderson added, with video conferencing being a new method to reach those interested in a National Guard military career.

Anderson leads a team of four recruiters, and recent years usually saw at least one of them in a school talking to interested young people on a given weekday. Most years they were bringing in 70 to 90 recruits for the 185th, which has a longstanding presence south of Sioux City.

That number hit a record high of 110 for the recruiting year that ended Sept. 30, 2019. Anderson said his team was on track to match or exceed that number again this year before it fell off as the global pandemic struck. Still, to reach 91 for the year that ended in September was no small feat, he said.

"It is difficult...We've adapted to the environment we're in," Anderson said.

The virus first began surging in Iowa in March. One of the largest waves has been happening since September, with the state hitting new highs in several statistical benchmarks over the last few days. About the time school districts stopped holding in-person instruction in March, the ability to meet students in school dried up.

"In a few weeks, we went from having a full schedule to things canceling on us," Anderson said.

Beyond schools not being open, the recruiters in past years would help with after-prom parties, which proved to be another opportunity to reach young people that dried up when some proms were called off or downgraded in scope.

Anderson said it took time getting used to Zoom video conferencing to speak with people. He had been polished with his in-person delivery, and noticed with conferencing he could no longer pick up on some interpersonal clues that come with speaking right next to a person. Eventually, he said the recruiters got skilled in questions and answers in the digital format.

At the beginning of October, some Northwest Iowa schools began letting the 185th personnel inside schools, just as they did for college representatives. The list includes East High School in Sioux City, plus districts in the towns of Mapleton and Moville in Iowa, and Homer in Nebraska.

"We have to maintain the social distancing, wear the (face) masks, and that's OK," Anderson said.

He hopes the incursions into schools continues, although Anderson acknowledged that is contingent on when the virus dissipates. He said recruiting for the 2020-21 year began with solid inroads in October.

More than half of the recruits joining the 185th are men, although the percentage of women is growing. Anderson and the other recruiters work the areas in Northwest Iowa northeast to Dickinson County, east to Buena Vista County and south to Pottawattamie County, and delve a little bit into Dakota County, Nebraska.

A native of Ida Grove, Anderson knew when watching the 9-11 terrorist attacks as they unfolded during his senior year of high school that he wanted to serve his nation via the military. He became affiliated with the 185th in a full-time capacity by the mid-2000's, and has enjoyed his career at the base.

Anderson has a number of points he may make when talking to interested people about serving in the Air National Guard. He knows some feel the pull of service, while others are seeking perks like a program that pays a lot of college costs, to the extent that some can graduate with a degree and have no debt.

Others who don't follow the college route can get training for a wide variety of occupations, such as working as electricians, plumbers or firefighters.

"We can help you, where there is a civilian job on the outside," Anderson said.


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