WASHINGTON - A senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that it was "deeply disturbing" that the head of the Army Reserve fears his force is reaching the breaking point due to the strains of overseas deployments and outdated personnel policies.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and a one-time officer with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was reacting to a memo from Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, that appeared Tuesday in The Sun.
Helmly wrote in the Dec. 20 memo to Army leaders that the 200,000-soldier Army Reserve was "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken force.'" The three-star officer cited the strains of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan along with "restrictive" and "dysfunctional" personnel policies imposed by Army and Pentagon officials that "are eroding daily our ability to reconstitute into an effective operational force."
'A tremendous burden'
"The memo by Lt. Gen. James Helmly reported on today by The Sun is deeply disturbing," Reed said in a statement. "By consistently underestimating the number of troops necessary for the successful occupation of Iraq, the administration has placed a tremendous burden on the Army Reserve and created this crisis."
The burden that Iraq places on the Army Reserve, a force of part-time soldiers who hold combat support jobs as engineers, medics, military police and truck drivers, among others, is but one part of Helmly's troubles. He also said he has been frustrated in his efforts to overturn at least five personnel policies.
In one instance, Helmly wrote in his memo that he has about 16,400 soldiers in the Army Reserve who are not meeting the terms of their contracts but are being paid about $46 million in health and other benefits. The general said he wanted the Army secretary to use his statutory authority to call these soldiers to active duty. When that action was not taken, Helmly vainly requested authority to discharge the soldiers, who are deemed "non-participants."
Helmly said in an interview Tuesday at the Pentagon that he didn't know why his advice was rejected and wouldn't say by whom, only that he sent the request up Army "channels."
Another policy Helmly has grappled with involves the Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of 110,000 soldiers who are rarely used and do not train with or belong to a unit. Last year, Helmly began shifting some of these soldiers to designated units in what is known as the selected reserve for possible deployment overseas. After he had shifted 2,000 soldiers, he was ordered to stop by Assistant Army Secretary Reginald Brown.
Helmly said he believes senior Defense Department officials were at the center of that decision, after some soldiers complained to members of Congress.
"I believe there was political pressure brought to bear," he said.
Rick Stark, a retired Army colonel and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank that is examining the role of part-time soldiers, said yesterday that Helmly "is seeking to manage the force more expertly."
"He's a straight shooter. He has very strong opinions about how to transform the Army Reserve," Stark said.
Other service branches
Stark agreed that more soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve should be shifted to units that could be sent to Iraq and elsewhere. Such action should extend to the other branches of the armed services as well, said Stark, noting that only about one-fourth of the 1.2 million reservists in the military are in the Ready Reserve.
"Should they only be looking at the Army?" he asked.
David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Helmly deserves credit for pressing the issues, although he acknowledged that they are "politically controversial at best."
"General Helmly deserves another star. It had to take a tremendous amount of moral courage. He's basically bucking the Department of Defense," said Segal, noting that the Pentagon "doesn't want to admit there's a problem."
But a senior Army official, who requested anonymity, said that some of the policy issues raised by Helmly will be reviewed and some are likely to be changed.
To read the memorandum, go to www.baltimoresun.com/reserve.