StLP-D: Relying On The Reserves
July 24, 2005
Relying On The Reserves
By Ron Harris, Of the Post-Dispatch
HOUMA, La. - They all left together, Charlie Company, the so-called "Black Sheep," 160 members of the Army National Guard on their way to Iraq from this small southern Louisiana community.
As the buses rolled down Main Street, residents poured out of homes and businesses to wave goodbye to their citizen soldiers - college students, truck drivers, river workers, clerks. Students from Terrebonne High School left class and streamed onto the street for a last glimpse, some with tears rolling down their faces.
Three months later, six of the soldiers returned together in flag-draped coffins, following the worst single combat incident for the National Guard in Iraq. Seven soldiers had been killed when a roadside bomb struck their Bradley fighting vehicle, flipping the 50,000-pound vehicle upside down and killing everyone inside.
Six of the men were from Charlie Company, four from Houma and nearby Raceland. The community was devastated.
"The city took it very hard, even if you didn't know the soldiers," said Graham Douglas, principal of Terrebonne High School. "There was a lot of mourning."
The funerals lasted days, and before the six soldiers could be buried, two more Louisiana National Guardsmen were killed by another roadside bomb.
America's citizen soldiers of the National Guard and the Army, Navy and Marine Reserves increasingly are casualties in the war in Iraq. And the nation's reliance on the Guard and reserves is changing both fighting forces.
Currently, members of the Guard and reserves make up four of every 10 military personnel in Iraq. It's the largest long-term deployment of the nation's reserves in 50 years. And their casualties reflect that.
Men and women who just months ago held jobs such as truck driver, accountant and teacher now make up nearly one of every four servicemen and women being killed in the war.
Many of the deployed guardsmen are working as truck drivers, accountants and teachers in Iraq, but not always the same ones. Most everyone knows how to, and occasionally will, drive a truck, perform basic bookkeeping, and anyone above the rank of private is sometimes called upon to teach.
And when they are killed, their deaths resonate differently back home, because unlike regular military, Guard and reserve units are populated predominantly by people from the same communities.
Often their deaths register in clusters: two Marine reservists from San Antonio killed in May by an explosion; two Magnolia, Miss., National Guardsmen killed in February when a roadway collapsed; three more Mississippi National Guardsmen killed by a roadside bomb in May; two National Guardsmen from neighboring New York towns killed in March by a roadside bomb.
In no state have those deaths registered more than in Louisiana. Louisiana, along with New York, has lost more guardsmen and reservists - 23 - than any state in the nation, and all but one of those deaths have come in the last eight months.
And like so many fighting in Iraq, the soldiers are from small, tightknit towns - Olla, Batchelor, Opelousa, Pineville, Natchitoches, Ruston, Crowley and Houma.
According to military officials, what the men and women of the Guard and reserves are experiencing now is what they will be experiencing for some time. The role of the citizen soldier has changed, they say, for now and into the foreseeable future.
This change happened, as a policy shift rather than an exception, with the Bosnia intervention and the follow-on stability/sustainment operations. The writing was on the wall the first time an Army National Guard division headquarters took over as the command element for the NATO units in Bosnia.
"We used to be a strategic reserve," said Maj. Gen. Mark Bowen, head of the Alabama Army National Guard. "I would say now we're an operational reserve. When a guy gets in the Guard nowadays, he can figure that he's going to be deployed somewhere."
Brig. Gen. Charles Fleming, second in command of the Illinois Army National Guard, said the Guard had become "a very critical arm to the active Army."
"We have a statement," Fleming said. "It's not 'if,' it's 'when' you're going to deploy. Everyone has accepted that fact."
The high probability of being shipped off for extended periods of time, to war zones or other areas, is a dramatic departure from the old Guard and reserves.
Traditionally, members of the Guard and reservists trained one weekend a month and spent two weeks in the summer training at a military base. They might be called away for storm duty, as Charlie Company often was when hurricanes and tropical storms touched southern Louisiana. But seldom were they called away for months at a time.
That new reality is putting tremendous strain on the Guard and reserves, which make up half of all military personnel. Both are struggling to maintain their strength.
Recruitment is down dramatically, mostly because prospective recruits are worried about deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan or another country. In recent years, Guard members and reservists have served extended tours in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Haiti.
"I used to be able to get about eight people a month," said National Guard First Sgt. Derick Young, a New Orleans recruiter. "Now, I'm lucky if I can get one."
Retention is down, too, as Guard members and reservists take into account the impact that deployments, some as long as 18 months, have on their families and their civilian careers. Guard officers said the retention rate is higher among those who already have been to Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years, the primary lure of the Guard and reserves was money for college and some additional pay. That's what attracted Christopher Babin, one of the six Louisiana guardsmen killed. The same for Warren Murphy of Marrero, La., who was killed with Babin. And for Lee Goldbolt of New Orleans, a Southern University student and one of two Louisiana soldiers killed in March when a car bomb detonated near their Humvee.
"When he saw it was so hard to get a decent job and to go to college, he joined the Guard," his mother, Denise Goldbolt, said. "It meant he was able to go to college, and have an afternoon job. And he wanted to help me because I hadn't worked for a while because of major surgery."
The new dynamic has all but negated those benefits.
"The selling points for the Guard have changed," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, a lobbying group for former Guard officers. "The college benefits are still there, but the reality is if you come into the Guard today, there's a good chance that you're going to get deployed. So, it's less about educational benefits and it's more about serving your country."
Membership in the guard is now a distinct disadvantage for college students; they can count on not completing their degree programs on time, they will be delayed by at least one deployment, tuition assistance has a reputation for tardiness, to say the least, in making tuition reimbursements; there are just too many easier ways to get help making it through college.
The deployments are an economic hardship for many Guard members and reservists.
According to the National Guard Association, 40 percent of guardsmen earn less money when they are deployed, "sometimes a lot less," Goheen said. "You got people who are truck drivers who make pretty good money, and they don't make that when they are deployed."
Recruiters say dramatic pay cuts over long periods of time have caused some Guard members to choose not to re-enlist.
"Good soldiers are getting out because they fear going back overseas," Young said. "I'm making $150,000 and my wife is a stay-at-home wife. Now I'm in Iraq and I'm making $30,000. I can't take that kind of pay cut for a year, 18 months."
Congress, in the face of official Pentagon opposition, hasn't quite ever managed to pass a law requiring the single largest employer of guardsmen and reservists, the federal government, to make up the salaries of its employees when they are mobilized and deployed. Being a government employee and reservist or guardsman used to be a pretty decent gig, your employer could generally be assumed to have a clue about what you were doing and be supportive of it.
In some cases, the Guard has become so unattractive, Goheen said, that some soldiers leave it and join the full-time military.
"They say, 'I might as well enlist for these larger bonuses, particularly if I'm going to be deployed anyway,'" he said.
This also impacts recruitment for the guard and reserve coming the other way, off of active duty to the guard or reserve, which used to contribute about a quarter of guard and reserve recruits. Soldiers know that, in wartime, they get a better deal in the Regular Army.
Some recruiters reluctantly admit that in some cases it makes more sense for teens coming out of high school to enroll in the active military than the Guard. With deployment a high probability in either service, the active military offers more money for college, large signing bonuses and more benefits, like health insurance, something 20 percent of current guardsmen don't have, Goheen said.
And, full-time military service means avoiding deployment as a civilian, which is much more difficult than in the regular military, guardsmen said.
"It's harder on us because we're not used to this, we're not set up for deployment like the active military," said Louisiana Guard member Josette Paul, who spent seven months in Kuwait. "If you're in the regular military, they're already away from home. We have to suddenly take our lives and put it in storage.
"If you're a single parent, somebody now has to take your children. And what if you're single like me, no kids, no dependents. Who is going to take care of my things, bills, rent, car, home, pets, while I'm away?"
The degree to which the new stresses on the Guard and reserve change the services will not be known for some months, military officials said.
"There's no data right now that indicates where the trend is going to go," Goheen said.
However, more than 20,000 members of the Guard and reserves will return from Iraq and Afghanistan in a few months as the Defense Department rotates in active military personnel to take their places.
"It will be a little while after they get back that we see the real impact," Bowen said.
As an aside, in addition to FSO's returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan with their guard or reserve units, we're now starting to see new FSO's coming into the Service who are OIF and Afghan vets who were recruited into and joined the Service following their GWOT service. Numbers are still relatively small, I suspect, but over time this may have a significant leavening effect on the makeup of the Foreign Service.