Monday, March 29, 2004

'Citizen soldiers: Called to fight, on the Cheap'

The National Guard and Army Reserve are crucial to the U.S. military, yet its soldiers get hand-me-down equipment and fewer benefits than their active duty counterparts. It's time to stop making excuses. This administration is dismantling the effectiveness and readiness of the citizen soldiers that bailed their butts out in Iraq. It's time to more than repay the favor, now. An excerpt from a first hand report:

Shut up. Suck it up. And don't write your congressman.

For every citizen soldier called to serve in the war in Iraq, Afghanistan or the broader war on terrorism, that's an order.

So when the Oregon National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, ran low of ammunition, fuel, soap and even toilet paper while training for war in shabby Fort Hood, Texas, the soldiers complained only to their spouses.

So when another Oregon Guard unit was ordered to report to Fort Bragg, N.C., just three days before Christmas, even though the base would be nearly empty for the holidays, the citizen soldiers started packing their bags. However, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and acting Adjutant Gen. Raymond Byrne Jr. insisted the Oregon soldiers would report after the holidays. Byrne called the Pentagon. "I said, 'They ain't coming.' "

So now that tens of thousands of citizen soldiers are leaving their civilian jobs to serve alongside active-duty soldiers with better equipment, including stronger body armor, and more extensive health care and retirement benefits, most of them are just sucking it up.

They sure don't talk about this: Citizen soldiers may fight alongside active-duty soldiers, but if they are killed they cannot be buried alongside them. As it stands, National Guard soldiers are not eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

It's time to write your congressman. The Guard and Reserve are no longer forces of last resort, and the Pentagon, the Congress, the Bush administration and the American people must stop treating them that way.

"Our volunteer Army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history," said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

It is by design hard and controversial to send into harm's way police officers, electricians, teachers and other reservists from small, close-knit Oregon towns such as Cottage Grove, Albany and Ontario.

"I doubt there are very many people in this state who don't personally know somebody who's in the Guard, who's either been called up or is about to be," said Col. Mike Caldwell, the Oregon Guard's deputy director for state affairs. "People are actively debating the war. It's a healthy thing."

"Bungled" mobilization

Yet the heavy demand for reservists in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and for homeland defense has exposed the nation's failure to properly pay for and equip its citizen soldiers. Decades of "tiered readiness," a Pentagon euphemism for giving the Guard hand-me-downs from active-duty forces, left many reserve units unprepared and unequipped for rapid duty. Across the nation, parents, spouses and friends of reservists have resorted to buying body armor, two-way radios and other equipment for soldiers.

A disorganized Pentagon called up more than 10,000 Army Reserve soldiers with fewer than five days of notice, leaving soldiers with no time to plan their separations from their spouses and children or their civilian jobs. A separate payroll system for Guard soldiers failed, leaving citizen soldiers serving in Iraq either with incorrect paychecks or none at all.

Lt. Gen. James Helmly, head of the Army Reserve, conceded that the military bungled the mobilization of soldiers and gave them a "pipe dream" about the length of their deployments. Promised six-month deployments grew first to a year, then to more than 16 months.
In a recent memo to his subordinates, Helmly wrote that he was "really damned tired of going to see our reserve soldiers and finding they're short of simple things such as goggles. It's about time you listen to your lawyers less and your consciences more. . . . I want this stuff fixed."

Rather than fix all that's so obviously broken with the National Guard and the Reserve, some prominent figures in Congress and the Pentagon want instead to return to the days of a much larger active-duty military. A bipartisan group on Capitol Hill has proposed adding as many as 100,000 new GIs. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld already has OK'd a temporary increase of 30,000 soldiers in the active-duty force.

But any expansion of active-duty forces must not come at the expense of long-overdue new investments in the National Guard and Reserves. The Pentagon is rumored to be contemplating reducing the size of the Army Guard from 350,000 to 310,000 soldiers. "I'd be strongly opposed to any reduction in the National Guard," Kulongoski said. "The states have a great need for a viable Guard."

Congress and the Pentagon can't wait any longer to address the unequal benefits and equipment provided to citizen soldiers. Without more support, the part-time soldiers now serving or preparing to serve full-time in a war zone could eventually leave the Guard and Reserve in droves.

A survey of 5,000 citizen soldiers from 15 states in February showed the rate Army Guard members choose to leave the military could jump as high as 22 percent a year. Last year about 16 percent of all Army Guard troops left as a result of retirement, injuries or a decision not to reenlist.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio says the Guard "is looking at a real recruitment and retention problem in the near future. If we're not meeting their needs, and right now we're not, it's going to erode the all-volunteer Army." It's short of everything from Humvees to armor to the newest rifles and radios.

Congress also should enable Guard soldiers to buy into the health insurance system provided to active-duty soldiers. Through bitter experience, the military now knows that health care is a readiness issue. Hundreds of reservists have shown up for duty in Iraq with minor injuries, illnesses or dental problems that either delayed or prevented their deployment.

Finally, Congress should make citizen soldiers who die serving their country eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. If Arlington is a resting place for the nation's military heroes, citizen soldiers who give their lives belong there, too.

All this will be difficult for a Pentagon and active-duty commanders still not used to seeing part-time soldiers as equals. Such changes won't come easy for a military establishment that has neglected the Guard and Reserve for 30 years.

Yet with the United States in a war that cannot be won without the brave service of tens of thousands of citizen soldiers, the Pentagon really has only one choice.

Suck it up.

Posted by a Vet -- -- permanent link