Is the war in Iraq hampering rescue and relief efforts back home?
It's hard to get a straight answer. Governors have been warning for months that the deployment of so many National Guard troops in Iraq has left their states shorthanded. Back in June, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer warned that his state could be high and dry come fire season if some of its soldiers didn't come home. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee warned of being "stretched thin" if a natural disaster struck in his state. And Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she was worried about what would happen if a hurricane struck.
So when a hurricane did strike this week, the Pentagon's public relations machinery was ready for the questions that it knew would be coming. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita immediately assured the Associated Press that the states in Katrina's path would have adequate National Guard units at home to handle any needs that might arise.
But a story in this morning's Washington Post casts a little doubt on those assurances. While the Pentagon puts on a good show, the Post says that National Guard officials in the damaged states have "acknowledged that the scale of the destruction is stretching the limits of available manpower while placing another extraordinary demand on their troops -- most of whom have already served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan or in homeland defense missions since 2001."
"Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event," Mississippi National Guard Lt. Andy Thaggard tells the Post. "We need our people." The Post says about 40 percent of Mississippi's Guard contingent is either in Iraq or getting ready to go there. The rest is being deployed for hurricane work now, and it's not going to be enough: Mississippi has requested troops and aircraft from about eight other states, the Post says, and other states hit by Katrina are also calling for help.
The Pentagon has promised governors that they'll always have at least 50 percent of their Guard contingents at home, and so far it's making good on the vow. One catch: With National Guard enlistment down in many states, 50 percent of a state's contingent isn't always what it used to be.