WASHINGTON - The Army Reserve, a force of 200,000 part-time soldiers that provides key support in Iraq and Afghanistan with medics, engineers and truck drivers, "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force," its top general told senior Army leaders.
In a blunt memo, Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, noted the demands of overseas commitments and the unwillingness of Army and Pentagon officials to change "dysfunctional" policies that hamper the Reserve on issues such as training, extension of service and the mobilization of his soldiers.
The Dec. 20 memo, which was obtained by The Sun, says "current demands" in Iraq and Afghanistan put his command in "grave danger" of being unable to meet other potential Pentagon missions or help with domestic emergencies, and that the Army Reserve "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."
"The purpose of this memorandum is to inform you of the Army Reserve's inability ... to meet mission requirements" associated with Iraq and Afghanistan "and to reset and regenerate its forces for follow-on and future missions," Helmly wrote in the eight-page memo sent through channels to the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.
"I do not wish to sound alarmist," Helmly wrote. "I do wish to send a clear, distinctive signal of deepening concern."
Interviewed yesterday at the Pentagon, Helmly said: "I stand by the memorandum. Is there frustration? Absolutely. Is the frustration beyond control? No."
The memo was designed as a frank exchange with Army leaders in advance of congressional hearings, Helmly said, adding that he plans to press ahead with reforms for the long-term health of the Reserve.
"Loyalty means I share with the chain of command my best professional judgment," he said.
Helmly would not discuss specific officials who declined to support policy changes, but said political pressure from Congress led to a roadblock in one instance.
A senior Army official, who requested anonymity, said yesterday that unexpected troop requirements in Iraq led to the problems Helmly outlined. The active-duty forces needed there grew continually over the past year, requiring more Reserve soldiers to provide support. In May 2003, before the Iraq insurgency sharply intensified, about 8,000 Army Reserve soldiers in Iraq were sent home, only to be recalled three months later.
The 150,000 U.S. troops now in the region include about 30,000 Army Reserve soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait.
"We were still able to field the forces we needed" and were reluctant to change policies that would burden soldiers and their families, the senior Army official said. Now, with Iraq expected to tie down a sizable number of U.S. soldiers for several years, some of those policies will have to be changed, the official said.
"I think some will be changed," said the official, who expected Schoomaker and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey to discuss the issues with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "We have to do something or I predict problems."
'Spread too thin'
Helmly's private and unvarnished assessment echoes the concerns of other officers, defense analysts and some members of Congress, who have predicted that the burdens of overseas missions, particularly in Iraq, could begin to fray the all-volunteer U.S. military. The National Guard and Army Reserve are experiencing a recruiting slump, though the active-duty Army is meeting its goals.
"The general consensus is, the Army's spread too thin," said Charles Moskos, a longtime military sociologist at Northwestern University, who has been to Iraq and heard complaints from reservists that included the lack of adequate training and equipment.
"The Reserve and Guard are not treated equally with the other services," said Moskos, who foresees more problems with recruiting and retention.
Moskos said the problems Helmly outlines must be addressed by some type of commission that is independent of the Pentagon.
An active-duty officer, who has served in Iraq and seen how stretched the Army has become, called Helmly a "true hero" for writing the memo and criticized other senior officers for not stepping forward.
"This is a warning flag that the Army is broken," he said. "We all knew it was going to show up in the Reserve and National Guard first."
Helmly served two tours in Vietnam, one with the 101st Airborne Division, and won a Bronze Star for valor. He earned a reputation as a no-nonsense leader during 2 1/2 years as chief of the Army Reserve. But he has annoyed the Pentagon hierarchy over the past year with pessimistic talk about recruiting and retention as the military leadership has tried to be more upbeat.
Three weeks ago, Helmly told The Dallas Morning News that Army Reserve recruiting was in "precipitous decline" and that if it did not turn around could spur national debate over the reinstitution of the draft. The general said the Reserve was running about 10 percent short of recruiting goals and that the Pentagon bureaucracy was "much too sluggish" in implementing new bonuses for those who sign up.
The Reserve's retention rate is holding steady at 103 percent of the goal, but Helmly told the newspaper that he fears those numbers could fall in the months ahead.
In his memo, Helmly noted the Pentagon requirement that the Army Reserve leave much of its equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan for use by other services and contractors. He also criticized policies that delay training of reservists who have returned home from overseas duty, noting them among a number of "peacetime" personnel policies that need to change.
Helmly wrote that he has tried to alter several personnel policies, including one to extend the mandatory retirement dates for Reserve officers. But officials, including Reginald Brown, the assistant secretary of the Army for reserve affairs, have repeatedly rejected such moves, he wrote.
Helmly said in the interview that he was uncertain why Brown rejected his request.
Helmly faulted the Pentagon for not taking greater advantage of its power to require individuals or units to serve. Instead, he said, the military is relying too much on "volunteers" from the Army Reserve. Such demands "threaten to distort the very nature of service," he wrote, and could make it more difficult in the future to call up reserve units.
Helmly said the "most likely" volunteers will be those who "enjoy lesser responsible positions in civilian life." The current policy of paying these volunteers an extra $1,000 per month will create the expectation of such incentives and confuse the term American soldier with "mercenary," he wrote.
All told, these matters are "eroding daily our ability to reconstitute into an effective operational force," the memo said.
Those who serve in the active-duty Army or Army Reserve generally must fulfill an eight-year service requirement. National Guard units, by contrast, are controlled by the governor of their state until called to federal duty.
Those in the Army Reserve can serve in the Selected Reserve, in which they join a unit and train at least one weekend a month, or enter the Individual Ready Reserve, whose soldiers are not part of a unit, do not train and are rarely called to duty. Last summer, about 4,600 soldiers of the Individual Ready Reserve were activated for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army Reserve lists as its core competencies civil affairs, medical support, military policing and transportation. Last year, it provided 36 percent of the Army's combat service-support capabilities, according to Army Reserve figures.
"There are in fact, capabilities in the Army Reserve, such as medical support and civil affairs, for which there is no alternative," Helmly wrote. "Failure to address these in a balanced, forward thinking, and responsible manner will further damage the Army and Armed Services capabilities now and in the future."
Helmly expressed concern about the number of troops available to meet the Army Reserve's mission, writing that those numbers always change, "almost always downward." In a section titled "What's Left," Helmly lays out the strain on the Army Reserve, with its overseas deployments and the increasing number of soldiers he is sending to help at Army training bases.
Of the 200,366 soldiers in the Army Reserve, Helmly wrote, only about 37,515 who are available for missions have not been deployed yet.
Helmly details in his memo personnel issues that he sees as particular problems. He noted that regulations that allow the shifting of soldiers from the little-used Individual Ready Reserve to selected reserve units are not being used. Helmly said he shifted about 2,000 before Brown told him to stop.
Helmly said some soldiers in the Ready Reserve complained to members of Congress and that he believes the decision to end the shifts came from senior Defense Department officials.
"I believe there was political pressure brought to bear," he said.
Helmly also wanted to discharge about 16,400 soldiers who are not meeting their Army Reserve obligations and are costing the government at least $46 million per year for health and other benefits. That proposal, too, was rejected. Helmly said he doesn't know why and won't say by whom, only that he sent the request through Army channels.
The senior Army official who commented on Helmly's criticism predicted that top defense officials would be asked to shed those thousands of soldiers. Other personnel policies would be reviewed, he said.
"I think we have to look at that policy if we're going to be in sustained combat," said the official, noting the large number of soldiers in Iraq. "I'm planning on this level of commitment for the next two to three years."
To read the memorandum, see www.baltimoresun.com/reserve.
In a memo, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, lists these recommendations to ease staffing problems:
Begin using authority to involuntarily reassign soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve to Army Reserve.
Call to active duty soldiers called nonparticipants, who fail to meet obligations. Otherwise, discharge such members rather than keep them on the rolls where they paint a false picture of strength.
Extend mandatory retirement dates for reserve officers.
Eliminate requirement that Army Reserve officers retire at their 20th year of active service.
Use volunteer retirees as a first priority to satisfy some staff requirements.