After a year crisscrossing Iraq and dodging ambushes in Army convoys, truck driver Sgt. Michael Kunzelman was supposed to reunite with his family this month. But while in Kuwait awaiting a flight out, the Washington National Guard soldier was ordered back into Iraq along with more than 4,100 other National Guard and Reserve members whose terms of service had been extended.
Back home in Burien, Wash., the news hit hard. "I wasn't in a good mood, and then my son got mad and went out and was beating on a tree," says Sergeant Kunzelman's wife, Pilar. At school, his teenage daughter overheard cruel gossip predicting his demise.
On and off the battlefield, National Guard and Reserve members and their families are bearing a particularly heavy burden as the Pentagon expands the US force in Iraq to 138,000 troops through 2005 to counter a surge in violence. The high rate of deployment is fundamentally changing what it means to serve in reserve units today, exacerbating problems of lost pay, fears of job insecurity, and the isolation of dispersed families such as the Kunzelmans.
Already, 51 percent of the 350,000-strong Army National Guard has been activated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Pentagon projects that over the next three to five years, it will require between 100,000 and 150,000 Guard and Reserve forces to support ongoing military operations, according to a recent GAO report. More than 90 percent of the Guard's military police and special forces have deployed, along with three-quarters of its engineers, combat battalions, and transportation units.
That stark reality is making it harder to recruit. Pitches no longer center on educational funds, but instead stress patriotism. "We have to look at kids right in the face and say - 'You're signing up, and during your tour, you will deploy,' " says Col. Mike Johnson, personnel director of the Washington Army National Guard, which has 3,720 of its 6,200 personnel deployed.
Attracting soldiers from the active duty force is especially hard. That pool, which has traditionally supplied 60 percent of the state's Guard recruits, is providing 10 percent to 20 percent fewer in fiscal year 2004. "We are getting a lot of reservations from guys who are just getting out [of active duty]. They know if they join us they'll have to go right back in there [to Iraq]," says Colonel Johnson, who keeps lists of deployed units on his office walls.
In the longer term, the Guard's shift from a "strategic reserve" to an "operational force" will not be sustainable without greater resources, says the National Guard Bureau chief, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum. "Congress needs to reevaluate the benefits, the entitlements, the pay, the resourcing, the equipping, and the full-time manning issues of the Army and Air Guard or we can't be an operational force the way you would like it to be," he told a House hearing April 29.
Lacking such resources, the Guard has drawn on units staying home - which now lack a third of their critical equipment - to fill shortages in units called up for Iraq and Afghanistan, stated the GAO report released late last month. For example, Army guard units nationwide initiated the transfer of 71,000 people and 22,000 pieces of equipment to three deploying combat brigades. Meanwhile, some state officials worry that remaining Guard units lack the manpower and gear to carry out homeland security missions and respond to natural disasters.
For their part, soldiers and their families measure the cost of a strained system in personal terms: lost pay and lost time. Indeed, as of this February, 57,000 Army Guardsmen (16 percent of the total) had been away from home for more than 220 days of the past year.
When Kunzelman's 130-strong 1161th transportation company was held back in Iraq, for example, employers at its home base of Ephrata, Wash., grew nervous. One manufacturing business there had three of its 12 employees deployed. "How can they ensure the jobs [will be there] if business production is suffering ... and the company has to downsize?" asks Chris Kunzelman, the sergeant's sister and the coordinator of a Family Assistance Center for the Washington National Guard.
Other guardsmen are struggling to hold onto their own businesses, from trucking companies to family farms, she says. Nationwide, a third of guardsmen and reservists suffer a loss in pay when deployed, and Kunzelman says that figure rises to 60 percent in Washington State.
"I hope his job [driving trucks for a sanitation company] is there" when he returns, says Pilar.
To discourage discrimination against citizen soldiers, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington has introduced legislation that offers small businesses employing reservists up to $12,000 in tax breaks - money that would secure their jobs and make up pay differentials. The bill would also provide grants to defray childcare costs of spouses who must return to work.
Jenifer Chesser, whose husband deployed to Iraq with the Washington Guard's 81st Armor Brigade in February, has struggled to make ends meet. A glitch in her husband's paycheck left her short of funds; lacking money for groceries to feed herself and her two children, she relied on gift cards donated by Safeway. When she couldn't pay a $46.32 water bill, her water was shut off until the Salvation Army forwarded funds.
Making matters worse, many families of deployed guardsmen are geographically dispersed and far from sources of financial, medical, and moral support. In Washington, families are scattered in 220 of the state's 240 major cities.
"I don't know anyone around us that has anyone deployed," says Pilar, a homemaker, saying she has bouts of depression and sometimes sleeps all day.
Support groups exist, but are often too far away for spouses to attend. Only three wives of 81st Brigade guardsmen gathered at one recent group meeting near Tacoma - though they were clearly buoyed by the chance to share their woes and take a break from single parenthood.
Dusti Bevill wears a gray tank top, revealing her husband's name tattooed on her left arm. "I haven't even moved his hat, his belt, his toothbrush from the place he left it," she says.
Penny Campbell, a mother of four, nods. "I wear his shirts," she says. "And I don't want anyone to drive his van because he was the last to drive it." Tears start streaming down her cheeks: Hours earlier, she'd learned that her husband's hand was injured in an accident.
"Everything's depressing," she says, ticking off problems. "I have a daughter going into early labor, a son with nightmares, and a daughter who can't sleep alone." She also worries about her oldest son, a 16-year-old, who she says feels he has to be the man of the family. But now, he's also planning to enlist in the military. "He says he should go fight a war because his dad did."
Young children often have difficulty grasping a parent's lengthy absence, leading boys to act out and girls to withdraw, says group leader Sherrill Hendrick.
Mrs. Chesser learned that firsthand one recent day when her five-year-old son, Robby, took an entire tub of margarine and buttered the floor, wall - and dog. "My dog went from a German Shepherd to a Lab," she says. "[Robby] thinks if he's bad enough, Daddy will come home."