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National Guard gets a mixed blessing

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Thousands of National Guard soldiers and their families may have breathed a sigh of relief this week when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that Guard troops called to serve in Iraq will be gone from home only 12 months instead of the 18 months that they currently serve.

But the change may be a mixed blessing. As Pentagon operations officers wrestled with the details of the new mobilization plan, it became clear that the National Guard will serve shorter tours - but may have to go more often.

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How that will affect the Guard's efforts to recruit and retain qualified soldiers is a gamble, analysts said, particularly with families and employers increasingly tested by extended absences.

Senior military officers, including Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the shift to a 12-month mobilization for the Guard will effectively limit their actual time in Iraq - BOG, in military shorthand, for "boots on the ground" - to between 8 and 10 months. The remainder of their 12 months is taken up mostly by pre-deployment training and one month of mobilization time for home leave that the military is required to provide.

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Shortening the Guard's time in Iraq by as much as one-third means that, ultimately, more units will be required to serve in the rotation as the Pentagon struggles to build U.S. forces in Iraq to 153,500 troops under the new plan announced by President Bush last week.

"They are going to have to send people more quickly, which will add up to more people over time," said Christine Wormuth, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. For many Guard soldiers, "knowing that it's only a year total will make it go down easier," said Wormuth, who last year completed a massive study of the National Guard.

Wormuth said she is worried about the long-term consequences.

"The longer the need to maintain a large force in Iraq goes on, the more risk there is for the Guard," she said.

With 350,000 soldiers, the National Guard is a significant combat force that, until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, tended to be a military backwater - under-equipped with cast-off Army gear and far from combat-ready.

But the need for fresh combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan changed all that. In 2005, more than half of the U.S. Army's combat power in Iraq was provided by National Guard units.

Until now, Guard units mobilized for Iraq have spent at least five full months in training. The Pennsylvania National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat team, for instance, assembled at Camp Shelby, Miss., in January 2005 for initial processing and spent four months working in new facilities that replicate conditions of a forward combat base in Iraq.

Training with Iraqi role players and interpreters, the troops learned how to operate vehicle checkpoints, conduct convoy operations and work with Iraqi police.

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The unit also spent one month at the Army's desert training center at Fort Irwin, Calif., before flying to Iraq for 12 months of combat operations in al-Anbar province.

Those months of training, defense officials say, are critical combat preparation for soldiers who spend the majority of their time as civilians. But the time also is considered vital to building the camaraderie and teamwork required for successful combat operations.

"It is an important opportunity to build cohesion, to build the kind of teamwork you want," David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, said last month.

Time actually deployed in Iraq is further shortened by the weeks required for staging and transporting units and their gear into and out of the war zone.

"My bet is nine months probably on the ground is the best we're going to get out of a year's mobilization," the Army chief, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve, a congressional panel, last month.

Nevertheless, Schoomaker said the Army and National Guard were trying to move to a 12-month mobilization policy in order to spread deployments out among Guard units.

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The goal, he said, is to mobilize Guard soldiers not more than once every five years. Currently, they are mobilized roughly one year out of every three or four. And with a limit of 24 months that each Guardsman can be mobilized, the Pentagon was running out of manpower.

That limit was lifted so that all Guardsmen are subject to remobilization, whether or not they have already served. Defense Secretary Gates also announced his intention to mobilize Guard units rather than individual soldiers.

These changes have been in the works for some weeks, Pentagon officials said, but they were still scrambling last week to iron out details and gauge the implications of the policy changes.

"Conceptually, it's not all been worked out yet," said one Pentagon official.

"We're building the airplane in flight," Schoomaker explained last month, referring to his efforts to shift mobilization policies while trying to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials who studied the initial six months of training provided to Guard units found that much of the time was spent filling out Army forms, standing in line for dental exams and sitting around waiting for training to begin.

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"I don't mind being sent to Iraq - just don't make me go back to mobilization training," a National Guardsman told Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, not long ago.

Some soldiers were mobilized who clearly were not fit. Schoomaker told of visiting a mobilized unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., and finding one solider who had suffered three heart attacks, and another "with a growth on his neck that I promise you took years to grow, and yet there he was."

Combat experience has tightened up a lot of the slack. In Pennsylvania, about 4,000 Guard soldiers have already served in Iraq, meaning that they are more fit and well trained, said Capt. Cory Angell, a Pennsylvania National Guard officer. Much of the preparation and training previously done after a unit is mobilized now can be done beforehand, Angell said.

To speed that process, the Pentagon allows each state's adjutant general, the senior military officer, to certify that the state's mobilized Guard units have mastered required skills and missions, such as rifle marksmanship, combat first aid, and battalion-level maneuvers. Until recently, those skills had to be demonstrated at one of the Army's sprawling mobilization bases such as Fort Dix, N.J., and certified by Army trainers. Still, there are questions about whether Guard units training at home will have access to the newest radios, vehicles, night-vision goggles and other gear that is in short supply.

"I hear from Guard units in Arkansas and all over the country that they don't have the equipment," Sen. Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, told Defense Secretary Gates at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

"We understand the nature of the problem," Gates responded, promising to "use the resources we've been given to try and make sure that the Guard has the equipment that they need."

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With the 12-month mobilization policy still being worked out at the Pentagon, employers were wary of trying to interpret the impact of the change on their workers who are members of the Guard or reserves.

"The operational tempo has clearly increased, and we've managed it well from a business standpoint," said Tom Greer, a corporate spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp., the giant defense contractor headquartered in Bethesda. About 2,000 of Lockheed Martin's 140,000 employees who are Guardsmen or reservists have been mobilized for 18 months or more since Sept. 11, 2001, Greer said.

"I don't think I'd want to speculate on the impact of going to 12 months," Greer said.

david.wood@baltsun.com


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