Iraq effect shakes National Guard
Tours of duty get longer and riskier, prompting concern about retention and recruitment.
CRANSTON, R.I. — When two soldiers in Sgt. Edward Rose's unit died in Iraq this month, he couldn't hug and personally comfort his wife, Jennifer, who knew both men and their wives. In fact, just that week, Mr. Rose learned their time apart would grow as his tour as a military policeman in Iraq was extended well into next year.
What Rose did promise his wife that he would quit the Rhode Island National Guard when his current enlistment ends. Instead of staying for a full 20 years as he'd always intended, Rose now plans to get out as soon as possible. His wife says he's unable to bear the thought of another long separation.
Around the country, other reservists, National Guard members, and their families are also rethinking their commitment to the military as their duties as "weekend warriors" have morphed into full-time jobs that have become increasingly risky.
As a result, military leaders worry about how they'll recruit and retain the next generation of part-time soldiers who are increasingly being called upon to fight the war on terror and man peacekeeping commitments from Iraq to Bosnia. More than 174,000 reservists and National Guardsman are currently on active duty and 34 of them have been killed while serving in Iraq.
"There's a potential for a catastrophic fall off," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. "How many people in these units want to deploy one in three years for the next half decade?"
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered a sweeping rebalancing of the active-reserve military mix that may well shift heavily demanded units such as military police into the active force in the next few years. But the proportion of reservists serving in Iraq will only grow next year as two Guard brigades relieve active duty combat troops.
Here in Rhode Island, generals have good reason to worry about the impact of frequent overseas deployments. The nation's smallest state has proportionately deployed the largest number of Guard troops abroad since 9/11. More than 500 Rhode Island National Guard soldiers are currently stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Kosovo, Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq in the state's largest deployment since World War II.
For the first time since that war, the Rhode Island National Guard suffered combat casualties this month when a Humvee assigned to the 115th Military Police company hit a land mine north of Baghdad, killing two sergeants.
Even before that incident, it had been a difficult seven months since the men and women of the 115th MP company left jobs that ranged from construction to teaching, and reported for duty at their Cranston armory, a building that looks no larger than a high school gym.
Though the war had officially ended when they arrived in Iraq, the violence had not abated. Several of the unit's soldiers were wounded while conducting raids and patrolling the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah, where lawlessness has earned the city a reputation as Iraq's "Wild West."
Meanwhile, spouses back home struggled to adjust to their altered lives, turning to each other to cope with the loneliness of Father's Day and burdens of raising families and paying bills. Potluck dinners and outings for kids have become part of the monthly calendar.
"You're always together," says Rose. "It's Rhode Island, it's small and it's the Guard family."
This past weekend, the spouses had planned to visit a Providence zoo. Instead, they headed to a church in Quincy, Mass., to attend their second funeral procession of the weekend. That service was for Sgt. Charles Todd Caldwell.
Most nights, Rose returns alone to the Cranston home she usually shares with her husband, who works as a federal prison guard in civilian life. She worries more about bills since their monthly income fell by several hundred dollars when he departed.
She keeps a handkerchief soaked with his cologne in their bed and pulls out the shoe box late at night where she keeps the audio tapes and letters he sends from Iraq. At most, they talk once a week. Invariably, Sgt. Rose unloads the burden of trying to appear strong in front of 33 subordinates in his platoon.
"The morale there is the lowest it's ever been," his wife says. "They talk about how terrified they are to go out. They are really afraid." Members of the company began second guessing their decision to enlist soon after they arrived in Iraq only to discover that their mission required much more than the weekend a month and two weeks a year many signed up for.
"There's some lying recruiters out there," one specialist told a Los Angeles Times reporter in July.
Rose says she didn't press her husband to leave the National Guard, a unit he has served with for 19 years, but she's relieved that he's decided to opt out. Relatives of other members of the 115th suggest Rose isn't the only one planning to depart.
Not all Rhode Island National Guards troops say they're dissuaded by the new risks and dislocation.
"As soon as you put on the suit, you should know - it doesn't matter if you're active, reserve, or National Guard," says Specialist Daniel Auxier, who spent much of last year serving at Guantanamo.
Nationally, the National Guard Bureau says it's on track to meet its 2003 recruitment and retention goals though officials admit it's premature to judge any fallout from deployments and deaths in Iraq. Stop-loss orders prevent many soldiers on active duty from leaving the military and National Guard units don't recruit while its troops are activated and deployed.
"We're OK for 2003, the real test will be 2004," says National Guard Bureau spokesman Reginald Seville.
Rhode Island National Guard leaders say they're concerned that some soldiers will decide to leave when they return. "It's an area that we need to pay attention to and a challenge we're going to have to overcome," says Major Gen. Centracchio, Adjutant General of the Rhode Island National Guard.
But Gen. Centracchio says he expects most to remain in the Guard when they come home. "After they have time to look at this and understand this is an investment and they want to continue to serve the country," he says.