Letting down the Guard

With 200 dead in Iraq, morale in the tank and reenlistments threatened, the Army National Guard and Reserve are facing a crisis.

By Jeff Horwitz
Published October 30, 2004 10:44PM (EDT)

Kenneth Woodring, a 15-year veteran of the military, dropped out of the North Carolina National Guard a few months after returning home from a year-long deployment to Baghdad's Green Zone. The deployment wasn't what he and his fellow soldiers had been expecting. "It wasn't supposed to last very long and we were told it was a peacekeeping mission," Woodring says. "It turned into more than that."

Woodring says he doesn't think the United States was "being as successful over there as we thought we would be." Yet Woodring didn't leave the Guard in protest over how the occupation is being conducted. He left because he wanted to be with wife and three children in Sylva, N.C. After all, he says, his children grew up so much while he was gone, and his youngest daughter, who was 3 months old when he left, didn't remember him when he came back.

Woodring says he's not the only soldier from his company who is getting out of the service and not reenlisting. "We had some old guys, and some of them are retiring. Others are just trying to get out," he says. He expects that up to 40 percent of them will leave and that those who don't will be redeployed to Iraq soon.

Ominous signs that the occupation of Iraq has convinced an unprecedented number of Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers to quit have been surfacing for months. It's a prospect that military experts fear may soon threaten the future of the United States' mission there. Eighteen months of occupying Iraq, they say, has brought America's Army closer to exhausting its supply of volunteer soldiers than at any point since the end of conscription, and placed more of a burden on Army guardsmen and reservists than they or their commanders ever expected.

But unless the next administration, whether George W. Bush's or John Kerry's, can find a way to make the current number of forces stretch further, it will soon face a choice between not sending fresh troops overseas or the politically unthinkable -- resurrecting the draft.

Morale among reservists today is simply in the tank. Reservists who expected to spend six months overseas have had their tours extended to 12 and then 18 months, and cumulatively, more than 410,000 reservists have served since Sept. 11, 2001, and 158,000 are currently on active duty. Many, with expertise in military policing, civil affairs or other specialties in short supply are on their second, or sometimes third, tour. As the insurgency has grown, guardsmen and reservists have accounted for an increasingly higher percentage of American fatalities. Two hundred have died in Iraq, making the Guard and Reserve the active-duty Army's full partners in even the darkest sense.

Even for those undeterred by the length and danger of deployments, the amorphous nature of the Iraq conflict can be tough to handle. "There's a lot of high school kids over there that, while the major conflict was going on, said, 'I want to do this,' and joined the infantry to go over there and kick ass," says former Florida Army Guard Spc. Zach Petersen, who spent 13 months as a machine gunner in Sector 17, Baghdad's Al Wasiria and Maghreb neighborhoods.

Petersen, who describes patrols as "driving down every crummy, dirty little street, and walking in trash half the time," believes the daily reality of the occupation -- endless difficulties communicating, and few overt enemies -- discourages many soldiers. "They were looking for more of the gung-ho hoo-ah," he says. "They'd rather die fighting for their country than be killed by a frickin' roadside bomb."

A roadside bomb nearly killed Petersen, who suffered a shrapnel wound and partial hearing loss when explosives detonated near his vehicle. Shortly before his unit returned from Iraq in January, a friend was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) planted brazenly close to their compound. A demoralizing trend in his sector's violence was clear by then, Petersen says. "Toward the end, the attacks were getting worse."

Stories like Petersen's don't augur well for Army Guard and Reserve retention rates, as even the military's own May 2004 Survey of Reserve Component Members observes. Obtained by the Air Force Times, but not intended to be publicly released, the survey predicts a sharp drop in expected Army guardsman and reservist retention, especially among those who have served in Iraq: Only 48 percent of Army guardsmen who had been deployed to Iraq said they were likely to reenlist. Forty-five percent of Army reservists reported the same. Even guardsmen and reservists who had not yet been mobilized reported they were less likely to stay in the service.

To forestall a drop in retention, the Army now entices soldiers with increased pay, bonuses and benefits -- and resorts to more forceful tactics when necessary. After more than a third of the former soldiers called up from the Individual Ready Reserve failed to report, the Army went so far as to classify some as deserters. In September, the soldiers of a Fort Carson, Colo., combat unit claimed the Army had given them the choice to reenlist or be transferred to another unit, which, they were told, would be headed to Iraq. Thousands of other soldiers never have such a choice because the military places their units under "stop-loss," preventing soldiers who had fulfilled their military contract from receiving a discharge.

Once widely regarded as a second-class force, the contemporary Army Guard and Reserve bear little resemblance to the reserve forces that largely sat out the Vietnam War. Today the Army Guard and Reserves' combined 550,000 soldiers account for more than half of the Army's total manpower, and while the Reserves contain a higher concentration of logistics and supply personnel than the more muscular active force, they also have their share of Green Berets.

Although guardsmen and reservists are as well prepared for deployment as they have been in decades, the process of sending them to war has not always gone smoothly. Serious mistakes have afflicted reserve mobilizations, including systemic payroll errors, the accidental deployment of soldiers with serious medical conditions, and equipment shortages. Some of these failures, most obviously the delays in supplying some reserve troops with body armor, have likely cost soldiers their lives. But while National Guard bureau chief Steven Blum's declaration last month that the Guard has "accomplished every single mission it was given" may have been hyperbolic, it wasn't wrong: Operation Iraqi Freedom has required more manpower, skill and sacrifice of the Army's Reserve component than any military campaign since the Korean War.

That the Army Reserve has functioned as well as it has is a credit to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, the two men responsible for rebuilding America's military following the Vietnam War. Their efforts to modernize and expand the military's reserves were driven in part by necessity: Postwar military budgets were tight, and part-time soldiers more affordable.

The other rationale for integrating the reserves into the active-duty force was to prevent America from fighting future wars as tepidly as it had fought in Vietnam. In the final years of the war, the military's leadership came to believe that blame for America's defeat in Southeast Asia lay at the feet of the civilian war planners. Presidents Johnson and Nixon, they argued, had placed politics above military success, and waged a war they had neither the stomach to win nor the guts to quit. "Abrams and Laird watched Vietnam destroy the best Army we ever had, and they blamed the politicians for that," says Renee Hylton, a historian for the Army National Guard Bureau. "There was a feeling among the military that they were being forced to fight the war with one hand tied behind their back."

One of the greatest handicaps the military faced was President Johnson's decision not to call up the Army Reserve. Though it seems ironic today, Johnson believed there would be more political resistance to mobilizing the National Guard than to widening the peacetime draft that had been in place since 1946. Mobilizing tens of thousands of guardsmen would have been an admission that the war was getting out of hand; incrementally increasing local draft board quotas, at least initially, was not. But as the Vietnam War escalated, Johnson's decision to forgo trained guardsmen and reservists in favor of unwilling, hastily trained conscripts proved increasingly disastrous.

Determined to prevent such a mistake in the future, Abrams stacked the Reserve with a disproportionate number of the troops required to fight a major conflict. A modern war requires truck drivers and military police as much as it does infantry soldiers, and Abrams correctly reasoned that transferring much of the military's overall logistics and supply capacity into the Reserve would make the active-duty force dependent on them: "They're not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves," Abrams is said to have declared.

Melding the two forces also served as an overt check on military adventurism. If, as Lyndon Johnson had thought, it was politically untenable to activate Reserve units for anything less than the immediate defense of America, then so much the better. Because Reserve units are often scattered across regions with no active-duty military installations, they are more liable to be missed and their absence is more likely to be questioned. "The Guard brings America to the fight," says Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States. "I'm not saying the Army's not part of America. But when you take two or three hundred people out of Nashville, Tenn., then everybody knows somebody who's fighting. And while people in America always support the soldiers, they may not support the cause."

Finally, forcing the Army to rely on reserves sets the clock ticking on any conflict. Reserve members can be mobilized for up to 24 months under an executive order, making them temporary troops: The longer reservists are activated, the greater the pressure to "win or get out," Hylton notes. "When you have a massive call for reserves, it means you're going to go to war, get it over with, and not be sucked into a quagmire, like we were sucked into a quagmire in Vietnam," says Hylton. "Because there's a definite limit on these people's service."

Thirty years after Vietnam, Abrams' plan, known as Total Force Policy, has become the blueprint for America's military structure -- and a grave obstacle to America's mission in Iraq.

In April 2003, when opinion polls in favor of overthrowing Saddam ran at 80 percent, the invasion of Iraq seemed exactly the sort of brief, popular conflict that the Reserve-reliant military had been designed to fight. The Pentagon assumed that American forces would preside over a relatively smooth and rapid occupation that would require as few as 30,000 soldiers by the end of the first year. Had this scenario proved accurate, the Army's reserves might have repeated the role they played in the first Gulf War, in which they remained largely behind the front lines, went home quickly, and did not suffer a single combat fatality.

Instead, with support for the war in Iraq hovering at 50 percent and no drawdown of troops scheduled, the same conflict looks more like the war Abrams designed the reserve system to prevent, and less like one that can be fought with the current force.

The resilience of the Iraq insurgency left military planners scrambling to close the gap between modest prewar manpower estimates and daunting postwar demands. Extensive military obligations elsewhere, and more than a decade of bipartisan reductions to the size of the active-duty force, made that impossible without an escalating reliance on guardsmen and reservists: In January, guardsmen and reservists accounted for 20 percent of our troops in Iraq, in May 30 percent, and now just under 50 percent.

A great deal has been said about the strain on the Army National Guard and Reserve during the 2004 presidential campaign. But there's little reason to believe that a new administration will slow the pace of Guard and Reserve deployments. Methods currently proposed to alleviate stress on the Army are anything but quick fixes: Bush's plan to recall troops from Europe and Asia wouldn't even begin until 2006, and significantly expanding the active-duty force not only would take years to complete, but may not even be possible.

"In an all-volunteer service, joining the military has to appeal to people, and that's dangerous because just when you need to increase your ranks is just when people are not inclined to join the military, by definition," says Brookings Institution security expert Michael O'Hanlon. Even boosting pay and benefits may not help, says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. "We're not going to find an additional 40,000 people who are willing to go on a battlefield for more money."

Kerry has made campaign themes out of internationalizing the occupation of Iraq and getting rid of the "backdoor draft" of Reserve members. But O'Hanlon notes that the military support Kerry could potentially charm out of allies in Europe and the Muslim world is only modest at best. "There's a chance we could get 10 to 20 thousand troops from Europe and maybe another 10,000 additional developing country troops," he says. "That's not negligible but it's not huge."

Under these circumstances, it's no wonder that both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Guard bureau chief Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum have recently been trying to downplay the prospect of long deployments. "All the Army leadership agrees that 12 months is too long," Blum told the New York Times. Whether they do may be beside the point, however: A September Government Accountability Office study found that the intensity of the war effort will likely require lengthening, not shortening, deployments.

"DOD risks running out of forces available for deployment, at least in the short term," the GAO reports. "It is unclear how DOD plans to address its longer-term personnel requirements." One solution, the study suggests, would be for the Department of Defense to "revise" its policies to allow "mobilizations of up to 24 consecutive months without limiting the number of times personnel could be mobilized."

The strain of multiple two-year deployments would be hard on all military families, Segal notes, but least tolerable to those of Reserve members. "Both active-duty and Reserve families go through a sort of calculus when a unit is deployed to figure out, 'Well, we're being asked to make sacrifices, and is it worth it?'" says Segal. "That calculus is different for Reserve families because they're being asked to make a different magnitude of sacrifice. Unless they live very close to a military base, Reserve families don't have the support system that active-duty families have, and guardsmen and reservists have primary commitments that active-duty soldiers don't. They have jobs, they're in school, they have wives, husbands and kids who don't necessarily buy that going to war is what they're there for."

While National Guard bureau spokesman Maj. John Toniolli concedes that long deployments are taxing to guardsmen, he says there's no good evidence that they'll drive them out of the service. Retention rates in the Guard have been solid for several years, he notes, and just because a soldier says on an Army survey that he'll quit doesn't mean he will. "Individuals are emotional when they come back," Toniolli says. "But as soon as they get back to their home station, and get back to their routine, a lot of them rethink things."

Whether soldiers will reenlist as willingly to patrol Fallujah in 2005 as they did to track bin Laden in 2001, however, remains to be seen. Says O'Hanlon: "We have no basis to think with confidence that the current rate of deployments will be sustainable for the military."

Could a draft be coming down the line? Not according to either party's presidential candidate. "We're not going to have a draft, period," announced President Bush in the second debate, and Kerry's been nearly as blunt, disavowing conscription except in the case of a future "global attack or conflagration." Both men's positions take for granted that Iraq will get better -- or at least, no worse, according to military analyst Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation. "People don't think we're going to be at this high level of operational tempo forever," he says. "They think that the operations in Iraq will change, people will see that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and that we'll go back to a prewar posture. The hope is that Iraqis move toward providing their own defense, and then the boys and girls will come home."

Brookes, a Navy reservist himself, shares this expectation, but concedes there are other possible outcomes. Should American military needs in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere continue to expand, Brookes notes, "you can shave somebody's head, send him to Paris Island, and make him a soldier in six weeks."

While the logistics of conscription might be straightforward, the politics of bringing back a draft wouldn't be. "In order to reinstitute the draft, an administration, any administration would have to convince the American people that the war that it was fighting was a direct challenge to America's national security," Segal says. "And I don't think that that sale could be made."

That leaves the Army to struggle to induce part-time soldiers to enlist and reenlist in a full-time war, a struggle that's getting more difficult every day. Many state Guard recruiting bureaus have yet to find a replacement for the slogan "Work one weekend a month and two weeks a year!" -- an enticement that now comes with a serious caveat.

If Reserve service can no longer be counted on as a worthy part of civilian life, what might induce soldiers to reenlist is a far more abstract concept. "Part of the reason people join the Army is a sense of citizenship duty," says Segal. "I think that we as a nation and our military manpower managers underestimate the degree to which young people in the United States are patriotic, are committed to the nation."

To what extent the Army can rely on patriotism to fuel recruiting and reenlistment is hard to predict. Many of those who chose to serve in the past, like Staff Sgt. Kenneth Woodring and Spc. Zach Petersen, may be proud of their service, but unwilling to repeat it. "It was worthwhile freeing people from the dictatorship of Saddam -- he was running the country by fear," says Petersen, but explains just moments later why he left the Guard: "I got home and realized there was so much stuff I was missing out on while in the service."

Woodring, a veteran of both the first Persian Gulf War as well as the current occupation, is intensely proud of his service. "I wasn't the type of person that just went into the Guard for the retirement or the free college and all that stuff. I did it to serve my country, to do the right thing," he says. He thinks he probably would have reenlisted if doing so hadn't almost certainly meant another deployment that he couldn't afford: "I don't want to go anywhere where I'd have to leave my family."

Jeff Horwitz

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