The Maryland National Guard will send roughly 1,300 of its part-time soldiers to Iraq in the largest call-up of combat troops from the state since U.S. forces stormed the beaches at Normandy more than 60 years ago.
The mobilization order - issued one week ago and confirmed by Guard officials yesterday - roughly quadruples the number of guardsmen from the state who will be deployed overseas.
"In this day and age as a member of the Guard and the fact that I haven't been deployed overseas in a long time, I knew it was going to be my turn soon," said 1st Lt. Rick Roth, 36, who will leave his wife and two children in Baltimore County for training next month before shipping over to Iraq sometime this summer.
The state has about 7,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard; some have been called on for multiple deployments for homeland security missions as well as for wars abroad since Sept. 11, 2001.
Yesterday's announcement means almost 20 percent of the state's guardsmen will be out of the country starting this summer.
"It's certainly a sizable number, but it won't degrade our capability to perform the mission at home," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who served in Iraq as an Army reservist before his election in November.
The deploying soldiers will serve in Iraq for about a year but are not part of the buildup ordered by President Bush in January for about 21,500 additional troops, according to Army Capt. Randy Short, a spokesman for the Maryland brigade.
"We're replacing other units, but we're not quite sure which ones yet," Short said.
Also unclear, he said, is the exact location the Maryland soldiers expect to land. The possibilities for their mission range from administrative and command and control duties to security patrols and guarding checkpoints side-by-side with Iraqi forces, he said.
Experts on the nation's part-time military force said the substantial size of the Maryland call-up would not harm the state's ability to mobilize guardsmen for local needs, including responding to natural disasters or terrorist threats. But some believe the National Guard continues to struggle with how it manages the citizen-soldiers sent into a war now entering its fifth year.
Christine E. Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Guard officials still labor over incorporating activated soldiers into the military's pay system. Finding enough equipment for the non-deployed troops left at home has also been a challenge, she said.
"From that standpoint, there is a question about the readiness of those units," she said. "There is some reason to be concerned."
On the plus side, Wormuth, who has testified before the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, said the Pentagon has made progress in gaining the support of those who employ guardsmen called to active duty.
"One big change has been that the new policy restricts their deployments to a year," she said, adding that before the change, the military leaders had slowly pushed up the average deployment for part-time soldiers to 18 months.
The Maryland contingent will be drawn from the 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Units include the headquarters staff of the 58th stationed in Pikesville; the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment headquartered in Dundalk; and the 1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry Regiment based in Annapolis.
In total, about half of the brigade's force will go. In addition to the Maryland guardsmen, the force will be supplemented with guardsmen from California and New Mexico.
Last night, the Associated Press reported that several National Guard brigades are expected to be notified soon that they could be sent to Iraq about the first of next year, according to a senior Defense Department official.
Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, Maryland's adjutant general, said in a statement yesterday: "We are deeply indebted to these citizen-soldiers and their families for their sacrifices in the defense of our nation and state. They are well-trained, well-equipped, well-led, and I have every confidence in their ability to perform their mission."
The first soldiers mobilized under the order expect to report to Fort Dix, N.J., next month for processing and additional training before deployment to Iraq, officials said.
Yesterday's announcement came as little surprise to the affected troops. In February, the brigade had received an "activation alert," a strong indication that a mobilization order was on its way, according to Short, the Maryland brigade's spokesman.
Not all of the troops are leaving at once. The last group will train in New Jersey in early June before shipping out, Short said.
"We were wondering when we were going to go, so I think now, there is some relief," Short said.
Part-time soldiers and airmen from Maryland are deployed around the world, serving in intelligence missions in Iraq, as Special Forces in Afghanistan and working in detainee security in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There are currently about 380 members of the Maryland National Guard deployed.
In May 2006, 130 members of the Olney-based Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, returned from a year of combat operations near Baghdad and in western Iraq. It was the first combat deployment for the Guard unit since the Normandy invasion in World War II.
On Bush' orders, 120 soldiers from Maryland were sent to Arizona last summer to aid the homeland security effort to shore up the nation's border with Mexico.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 5,200 members of the Maryland National Guard have been mobilized and deployed.
Their mission has not been without human cost. Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Haller, 49, a senior enlisted soldier with the Maryland Guard who begged to be sent overseas after the terrorist attacks, died in a Black Hawk helicopter crash north of Baghdad in January.
Roth, who has been a member of the Guard for 13 years and a veteran of a deployment to Bosnia in 1996, has already started seeking out advice from Maryland guardsmen who served in Iraq earlier.
"I've been talking to them about everything from tactical stuff right down to whether I should get an iPod," he said.