April 12, 2008

National Guard's defense role gets bigger

Even as the California Army National Guard's numbers dwindle, its role in national defense grows.

For citizen-soldiers the price is real. About three-fourths of Modesto's 184th Battalion will spend 2½ years out of five away from their homes and families. About 300 troops are headed back to Iraq in August with the 185th, also a Guard battalion. And 322 soldiers will begin active duty for service in Kosovo in December.

With generals and President Bush insisting the United States keep about 140,000 troops in Iraq, more Guard mobilizations appear likely.

More National Guard members from California have been called to active duty since 2001 than from any other state. Oklahoma and Texas rank second and third, respectively. Texas is the only state with a larger number of Guard members than California.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the California Guard has mobilized 26,600 troops. That includes call-ups for forest fires or assistance in emergencies, such as hurricane relief.

Of those mobilized, 7,120 have been sent to Iraq, 820 to Afghanistan and 3,700 elsewhere overseas.

Twenty-two California National Guard soldiers have died in combat and five from other causes since 2001. Nine of those combat deaths came from the 184th's deployment in 2005, according to the California National Guard's Web site. The unit has suffered more fatalities than any other state Guard unit.

Nationwide, 800 Guard members have been killed since 2001.

Current Pentagon policy would limit the length of the 184th's upcoming tours in Iraq and Kosovo to 12 months. The last time the 184th mobilized it was for 18 months, with about six months devoted to training in Texas. The 184th will train full time for two months or less before going into harm's way.

Training called 'useless'

Ira Myrick of Turlock left the 184th after serving in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and supports less training before deployment. He was a gunner and assistant team leader for a reconnaissance team.

"The training we did (in Texas) was useless. We spent six months doing nothing," Myrick said. "There's no reason to retrain in basic infantry skills if you've already had basic."

He said soldiers "need to be in (the) country and learn what the enemy is doing right now, not what he did two years ago. The battlefield changes day to day."

Sgt. Will Martin, public affairs specialist in Sacramento for the National Guard, said it was because of the war in Iraq that the Pentagon now counts on the Guard for regular, extended duty.

For 50 years, he noted, the Guard had been called on only in emergencies of short duration.

Once, soldiers and their units were promised five years at home after one year of active duty. But the policy changed to one year on and three off. And even that policy is being squeezed by a shortage of manpower. Martin said individual soldiers can count on at least two years at home after an active duty call-up.

As of March 31, there were 20,850 troops in California's National Guard. Martin said that's 5,000 fewer troops than were in the Guard at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

He said that as the numbers go down, so does the authorized strength and money from the federal government. "But deployments haven't slowed down," Martin said.

Other units on second tours, too

The 184th is not alone. Many others around the state and country are in the second round of deployments. A Sacramento-based air medical evacuation unit is in its third deployment.

The last time a large number of reservists was sent to Iraq was in 2004 and 2005. A Pentagon official said that it pushed the Army National Guard to its limits.

"We couldn't have kept that level of participation up," said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, the Pentagon's director of the Army Guard. In December, he told the National Journal, a magazine that offers nonpartisan analysis of federal trends and policy- making, that "the chief of staff of the Army said (in 2005), 'We won't have to have this level of commitment from the Guard for quite some time.' Well, here we are two years later, and the level of commitment is coming back up."

Many have been warning the nation that the military policy of making the Guard an operational component is "not sustainable."

Arnold Punaro, a former Senate staffer and a major general in the Marine Corps Reserve, is chairman of the congressionally chartered Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which declared current practices "not sustainable" in its March 2007 report.

Punaro told the National Journal: "We say the operational reserve is neither feasible nor sustainable without substantial, fundamental changes in just about everything from mobilizing and demobilizing, to equipping, to training, to funding, to personnel management. None of those changes has occurred."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

Related content