The National Guard's deployment to the Gulf Coast, which began amid worries about overburdening citizen soldiers already spread from Mississippi to the Middle East, has instead underscored a different - and perhaps greater - challenge: a chronic shortage of the equipment that Guard members need.
Though the head of the National Guard says he had more than enough troops, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum acknowledges that trucks, bulldozers, and communications equipment "all were in short supply for Katrina." He met the needs of the recovery by shifting resources among states, but the strain hints at a broader concern about the military's mechanical workhorses - both here and abroad.
Much of the Guard's equipment is in Iraq, and the war there has battered the helicopters and Humvees of every service, wearing them out five times faster than normal, by some estimates. The Pentagon says it will take at least two years to return the force to full strength after the war.
In the meantime, though, the Guard is left to do its homeland mission with what is left over. It has long been at the bottom of the military food chain, receiving fewer Army hand-me-downs than it needs because it has typically been a reserve - the last to fight. Yet now, with the Guard being used as a front-line force in Iraq, and with President Bush pushing for a larger military role in disaster relief at home, the Guard's lack of materiel is a primary matter of American security.
"I don't have all the equipment I need for 300,000 soldiers," says General Blum. "Equipment is my challenge now."
In Iraq, it is forcing troops to use every bit of their ingenuity - performing maintenance that would normally be done in stateside industrial depots, and jerry- rigging vehicles to withstand the fury of the insurgency and the Mesopotamian sun. Along the Gulf Coast, the situation has forced officials to scour Guard units across the country, taking their equipment and sending it to hurricane-damaged areas.
For a force that is often made to do more with less, the interstate sharing of materiel, called cross-leveling, is a normal practice. The war in Iraq, however, has forced the National Guard to scramble even more than usual. When Guard units rotate out of Iraq, many are being told to leave their best equipment behind. In total, the National Guard estimates that it has only 34 percent of its equipment available in the United States.
The need in Iraq is obvious, but "when our units come home, they have a mission," says John Goheen of the National Guard Association here, noting that National Guard units serve both the president and governors. When they "return home without their equipment ... they are unable to respond quickly."
Blum says communications systems in particular were scarce during the Katrina rescue operation, but he adds that he could have used more of almost everything. He filled those gaps through cross-leveling, but "that's a stop-gap solution" that pushed the Guard to the edge of its capabilities.
"The right answer will require some time and some resources," he adds.
For decades, there has been little need for the Pentagon to invest time and resources in the Guard. It was used only as a reserve, which meant its needs were secondary. But with the Defense Department now using the Guard as an operational force, "that model doesn't fit the current reality," Blum says.
Moreover, Mr. Bush suggested this weekend that the military take control of relief operations after catastrophic domestic disasters, pointing to an expanded role for the National Guard - the military's first responders for homeland security.
The more active role for the Guard has changed the calculus within the Pentagon, Blum suggests. "This is the first time in modern history that the Pentagon recognizes this as a core mission," he says.
Congress, too, is aware of the Guard's changing mission. Sens. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri and Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont asked the president last week to press for $1.3 billion in spending on new National Guard equipment. "The National Guard has deployed many of its resources overseas, consequently there are insufficient reserves of equipment available to respond to future disasters," they wrote.
The letter is just a hint of what could come. Across the armed forces, the war in Iraq is straining equipment. Part of that is the nature of the war. The Pentagon had not originally expected such a prolonged insurgency, so soldiers have used vehicles like Humvees in ways they hadn't expected - weighing them down with makeshift armor, for example, which puts excess wear on other parts.
Then there's the desert, which blows sand into every crank and gear and fries vehicles in a furnace of 120-degree F. heat. "They're wearing out because the environment is so harsh," says Christine Wormuth, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
One analysis by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that once the war ends, it will take $20 billion to return military equipment to prewar condition. In congressional testimony this summer, Gen. Peter Pace, the nation's second highest-ranking officer, suggested the process would last two years.
"That means that, currently, if we go to war somewhere else ... we clearly would not have 100 percent of the equipment that we would like to have to fight that war," said General Pace.
The likely result is that in the scramble of future postwar politics, the National Guard's shortages will be just one of many competing demands. "It's something that everybody is fully aware of," says Ms. Wormuth. "But it's a very challenging problem in a resource- constrained environment."