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Despite hardships of war, many soldiers reenlist

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In the three years since he joined the California National Guard, Sgt. Dennis Sarla has already finished two deployments: one for guard duty at a chemical weapons plant in Tooele, Utah, and another for a one-year tour in Iraq.

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Yet, like Waits, he reenlisted for another six years before he left the Middle East. For both, there is the understanding that six more years in the National Guard will move them closer to a military pension and a more secure retirement. There is also the $15,000 tax-free bonus that each will receive for reenlisting. But there is also something beyond a new truck or a refurbished kitchen - there is a sense of duty, a feeling of belonging, and a deep love of the job.

"I reenlisted not only for the retirement," says Sergeant Sarla, who spent eight years in the active Army before leaving in 1983 to raise three children, "but it is a way of life I like ... the discipline, the camaraderie."

"There is a satisfaction in putting on the uniform," adds Waits.

Waits still can't explain the geopolitics that led A Company of the 579th Engineers to Iraq, where three members of his unit were killed. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly attributed Waits's comments.] But he remembers the day the company returned home to Santa Rosa, Calif., accompanied by a police escort and greeted by throngs of well-wishers.

"Seeing little kids and old guys salute as we came back made me feel so good," he says. "It made me feel that I was doing something that was important and good for the world."

This is Lt. Gen. Steven Blum's "greatest generation." The chief of the National Guard Bureau has used the phrase repeatedly, and he is convinced that this generation of soldiers - especially members of the Guard and Reserve - are worthy of the title. Without their commitment, the war in Iraq would be all but impossible. Some 45 percent of the troops in Iraq are members of the Guard or Reserve, giving them an unprecedented share of the war effort.

Some, like Sergeant Sarla, joined after Sept. 11 and are motivated by it. Others, like Waits, left the active Army as the military shrank at the end of the cold war, lending the Guard and Reserve an invaluable core of experienced soldiers. The trends have created a unique Guard and Reserve, where many are willing and capable of taking on responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to the active services. In this conflict, that means adjusting to developments that seem to have caught the US by surprise.

Originally, the 579th was supposed to rebuild bridges and schools in Iraq - the sort of mission befitting an engineering corps. Instead, they spent the entire year as "international cops," Waits says, patrolling Iraqi roads and raiding houses where no one spoke a word of English. "The type of soldiering that's being done right now is PhD-level work," General Blum told Congress last month. "That man or woman has got to be a combat soldier in a moment's notice, and then the next minute he may be a goodwill ambassador, a social worker."

For now, American soldiers are adapting to the task. "This is the best trained set of soldiers we have ever sent to war," adds Blum in an interview. But some experts and military officials wonder if the military can sustain such retention levels, suggesting that dependence on the experience and commitment of the citizen soldier is a worrisome way to wage a war.

"I still think this is a potential point of failure," says Donnelly. "You can't expect people to do extraordinary things."