As National Guard goes through changes, soldiers face difficult decisions
LITTLE ORLEANS — One by one, the troops leaped out of the twin-rotor Chinook helicopter, filling the sky over Western Maryland. Each released an expansive silver parachute and glided down to the drop zone.
It was the final training jump for the soldiers from the 1st Squadron of the 158th Cavalry Regiment of the Maryland National Guard. The squadron, which draws members from throughout the country, is scheduled to be eliminated in coming months.
It's one of several changes confronting the Maryland Guard under a larger Army effort to cut costs and modernize the service. The state is set to lose 15 percent of its 5,000 soldiers in the next three years as part of a reorganization that will prioritize intelligence and cyberwarfare missions.
In the future, the work of the squadron's C Company — parachuting into hostile territory to identify enemy targets — will be performed by drones. The squadron is to be replaced by a military intelligence battalion.
Soldiers who participated in the training jump in Allegany County on Saturday expressed reservations about the plan.
Sgt. Moises Sanchez said he understood the desire to keep human beings out of harm's way. But he questioned whether unmanned aircraft could perform the job as well as a properly prepared soldier.
"If you allocate the training and make sure that they're trained up to do the job correctly, you'd minimize that risk," said Sanchez, 28. "As long as there's Americans willing to take that mission up, they should have the opportunity."
Squadron members said soldiers can navigate through trees, recognize and understand patterns and relay messages about key targets in real time. Drones can capture footage, they said, but analysts are needed to understand what they've seen.
The squadron has continued to train because members are required to be prepared for deployment until the unit is eliminated. Members invited family and friends to the jump on Saturday.
Supporters cheered when the first group hit the drop zone, and children rushed forward to help carry their parachutes.
Some members of Company C expressed disappointment that their unit is being eliminated.
"Part of the reason I joined was to jump," said Spc. Brandon Schulz, 25, of San Diego. "it's one of the reasons why I chose Maryland, but now we don't have that, so I have to find a new job."
Col. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, said "we had to change."
"Changes are always difficult," Kohler said. "We've been up front with them from the beginning about the future of the organization. These are changes that go beyond the National Guard."
The active-duty Army is taking the deepest cuts: Pentagon planners are aiming to get the component down from 570,000 troops at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to 450,000 by 2018.
They're planning to reduce the National Guard from 350,000 soldiers to 335,000 by the end of 2017.
Kohler said the 1st Squadron has helped draw recruits to Maryland.
"People do travel long distances when you have unique units with unique skills," he said. "They have interesting training opportunities and people are willing to travel in order to get those opportunities."
But, he said, "there won't be a major change of the organization because of this one unit."
Maryland's Army National Guard is developing its capability to gather intelligence, which officials think will help it recruit new members among civilian employees at the National Security Agency, other intelligence organizations and their contractors.
Similarly, the Maryland Air National Guard, which faces questions about the future of its aircraft, is trying to carve out a niche in computer warfare. Commanders are seeking a builder for a $25 million cyber center at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River.
As missions change, soldiers and airmen face decisions. The guard has put together an interactive guide to lead members through the process.
Intelligence units present a particular challenge because they demand highly technical skills, long training courses and high-level security clearances. The entry for one intelligence job in the guide, for example, notes that it requires a 24-week training course in Texas.
Kohler said some members of the 1st Squadron will become infantrymen, join Special Forces or leave the state to join another unit. He said many are asking, "Where do we go from here?"
Schulz said he is "starting from scratch." He's currently considering whether to stay in the Maryland guard or to try to find employment with a military unit in another state.
"I have a couple of different options right now, none of which I'm as excited about as doing this," he said.
The Maryland National Guard is reorganizing. Some units will be eliminated and replaced with others:
• The headquarters company of the 58th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade will become the headquarters company of the 58th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade.
• The 729th Brigade Support Company will become the 729th Quartermaster Composite Supply Company.
•1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry Regiment will become the 629th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion.
•158th Rigger Support Team soldiers are being transferred into other units.