Reservists now play central, not backup, role

National Guard and reservists face longest call-up since Vietnam, straining families and employers.

Thousands of US National Guard and Reserve troops mobilized after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks now face up to two full years of involuntary duty – the longest since the Vietnam War – underscoring the central role of the reservists in a US military sharply downsized during the 1990s.

Yet the extended use of so-called "weekend warriors" in the open-ended fight against terrorism is placing major strains on their families, incomes, and employers across the country. Doubts over whether the Reserve can meet the need for increased security and military operations in the long run has led to calls by some experts and officials for increasing the active-duty ranks – a plan the Bush administration has resisted as too costly.

"There is no question that the active force has become quite dependent on the Reserves, not just for major conflicts, but for performing normal peacetime missions," says Robert Goldich, a national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service here. The 1.2 million Guard and Reserve personnel now make up nearly half of all US military forces, compared with 1.4 million men and women on active duty.

"If we find ourselves conducting military operations of various intensity over the years – excluding Iraq – we may find it very difficult to provide the manpower we need just by calling up [the] Reserves," Mr. Goldich says. A US military invasion of Iraq would likely require the call-up of more than 100,000 additional Reserve and Guard members, he says.

Approaching burnout

One chief concern is that overtaxed reservists may burn out and leave the armed services completely, say defense and military officials. Currently 75,000 National Guard and Reserve troops are performing involuntary active duty. Of those, at least 14,000 from the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, including nearly 6,000 security personnel, face a mandatory stint of as long as two years.

"There is a possibility that a higher number than normal will leave the services at the first opportunity," says Col. Jim Martin, director of personnel and training for the Air National Guard. "We are watching the attrition rate closely" and offering reenlistment bonuses.

Mobilized guardsmen and reservists often make important sacrifices in the form of pay cuts and lost career opportunities, as well as less time spent with their families.

Civilian sacrifices

Ordered into active duty last November, Staff Sgt. John Hunter of the Air National Guard took a 40 percent pay cut from his civilian job and can no longer save for retirement.

"The timing couldn't have been worse for me," says Sergeant Hunter, who was running a successful contracting business from his seaside ranch home in Long Branch, N.J. when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drastically altered his life. Forced to abandon several lucrative projects, Hunter faces an additional year of active duty along with about 120 other members of the 108th Security Forces Squadron stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

Employers are required by law to reinstate reservists to jobs with equal pay, benefits, and seniority. But employers are not bound to make up the pay differential for reservists. Some employers such as large Fortune 500 companies do reimburse the pay gap for periods of between several days and a year or more, according to a survey by the Reserve Officers Association here. However, reservists who work for smaller firms or are self employed, such as Hunter, must often accept a substantial pay loss.

Although Hunter plans to stay in the Guard both out of a sense of duty and for the eventual retirement benefits, he expects many others to leave. "Everybody's concerned about the numbers we may lose" because of heavier demands on the force, he says.

Career setbacks are also common. Lt. Col. Brian Perry, a New Orleans attorney and Army reserve officer, served only three days last fall in his appointment to a Louisiana judgeship before he had to report to work as a logistics officer at Central Command in Tampa, Fla. His military salary is only half what he earned as an attorney. Dispatched to Afghanistan for five months, Colonel Perry has also seen little of his wife and six children, who live in New Orleans. "I just got orders yesterday for another year," he says.

Onward reserve soldiers?

The stresses of the war on terrorism are accelerating a historic shift in the role of US reserve forces in recent decades. During the cold war in the 1950s and '60s, when the US drafted citizens into military service, the reserve's mission was to stand ready in case of a big war; it was rarely employed for short-term contingencies, says Renee Hylton, a National Guard historian.

Since the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1973, and especially with the roughly 40 percent drop in the active force size since the Gulf War, Guard and Reserve units have become far more integral to the full range of military operations. These units have also become more multifaceted, adding intelligence, special forces, air cargo, and refueling units to their traditional infantry and fighter teams.

"Whenever something happens that requires more than just the bare bones, we will have to have reservists mobilized," says Lt. Col. Vincent Savoia, a spokesman for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

As a result, tensions are growing over how and how long reserve forces should be deployed in the future. Guard and Reserve officials, for example, favor shorter term rotations in the full spectrum of military activities including overseas missions. Active-duty military officials gravitate toward using reservists in longer assignments and as "backfill" in jobs such as base security at home, Ms. Hylton says.

"We should not be mobilized for backfill," says Col. Martin of the Air National Guard. "We should be factored in to the overseas rotation for the most part."

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