Iraq duty stretching National Guard
WASHINGTON — For a National Guard wanting to help support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan yet fulfill its primary mission at home, new deployments may further test its ability to be everywhere at the same time.
The Pentagon announced Monday that Guard units totaling about 13,000 troops are being told they'll probably deploy to Iraq beginning next year. The announcement indicates that the administration is still leaning heavily on the Guard to sustain the mission in Iraq, and the expected deployments complicate the Guard's efforts to be ready for homeland missions. While Guard officials maintain their units are willing and able to help support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics are concerned that equipment shortages and the time needed for training and rest at home will strain the Guard's ability to respond to crises domestically.
"The president's new plan to follow up this ill-advised escalation by sending ill-prepared National Guard troops to Iraq is another misguided strategy neither our troops nor the American people can afford," Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said in a statement issued Friday.
The likely deployment of more Guard troops to Iraq adds another dimension to a picture of a Pentagon already scrambling to staff a war over which Americans are increasingly divided. Last week, Defense officials announced that two Army units with less than one year of "dwell time" at home would be required to leave for Iraq in the next few months.
Yet the Guard is dealing with its own specific issues. The National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, led by Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, oversees each state's Guard unit and commits to state governors that at least half of the total force of 350,000 guardsmen are available at any time to respond to a national disaster. The Guard more than meets those requirements, says one Defense official.
However, it's contending with equipment shortages that are leaving 88 percent of units with less than half the equipment required to perform missions at home, according to a commission mandated by Congress to look at such issues.
In 2002, for example, four units had to provide their equipment to forces deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2005, 12 units had to do so, according to the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, citing National Guard Bureau data.
About 25,300 guardsmen are now serving in Iraq. The 13,000 guardsmen cited in the Pentagon's announcement Monday are stationed in four states: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana.
Observers outside the Pentagon believe the Defense Department may need at least twice the 13,000 additional troops from the Guard to sustain the effort in Iraq.
Much of Senator Reid's concern is based on a March report by the commission, which made a series of recommendations about how the Guard and Reserve should be resourced and structured.
"The priorities of the states and their governors are not adequately considered in the Department of Defense's policy and resourcing decisions related to the National Guard, even though governors are, and likely will continue to be, the leaders of most domestic emergency response efforts involving the National Guard," the report said.
In January, General Blum testified that he had heard from governors who complained about the lack of availability of guardsmen when needed the most.
For example, Blum cited Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), who visited her National Guard troops in Iraq but returned to find that a snowstorm had left more than 60,000 Kansans without power. "And she called me, and she said, 'You know, I don't have the engineer equipment and trucks and aviation I need to really take care of my own people right now,' " Blum recalled her telling him. "And I said, 'Governor, we share that concern.' "
Blum has done much "cross-leveling" of equipment and personnel – mixing and matching both people and gear with other state Guard units to ensure they are whole. But without about $40 billion over the next several years, Blum has said he can't sustain the Guard.
"We have lost time, to be frank about it, and time translates to lives," Blum told the commission Jan. 31. "We really do need a strategy that will reequip the National Guard here at home."
Still, there is a flip side to deploying the Guard overseas: critical training, says Mark Allen, a spokesman for the Guard bureau. "They have skills that are very useful in all kinds of situations," he says.
Units who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who were deployed to the Gulf region after hurricane Katrina could draw on their security-duty experience overseas when it came to restoring law and order after the storm.
"This training, this unit cohesion really helps you in our homeland security in critical situations, saving lives and dealing with the public," he says.
But like the active force, the Guard can become burned out, too.
"The thing that nobody knows is when guardsmen are being asked to do too much," Mr. Allen says.