Off their guard

The Gulf Coast disaster is further taxing the National Guard, already stretched to a breaking point in Iraq.

Published September 1, 2005 11:48PM (EDT)

On Aug. 1, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard lamented to a local reporter that the state might be stretched for security personnel in the event of a big hurricane. Dozens of high-water vehicles, generators and Humvees were employed in Iraq, along with 3,000 Louisiana National Guard troops.

"The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission," the Louisiana National Guard's Lt. Col. Pete Schneider told a reporter from WGNO, the ABC affiliate in New Orleans. Schneider said that in the event of a hurricane, Louisiana would need help from neighboring states.

Amid the Gulf Coast rubble and looting, it appears Schneider may have been right. "Missing personnel is the big thing in this particular event -- we need our people," Lt. Andy Thaggard, a Mississippi National Guard spokesman told the Washington Post Wednesday. Mississippi has 4,000 National Guard troops in Iraq.

Military experts have long said that repeated, lengthy deployments to Iraq are decimating the National Guard. Dispirited veterans are leaving the Guard in droves and recruiting has plummeted.

However, on Wednesday, the National Guard Bureau responded that it had more than enough troops to go around. Currently, 8,200 National Guard troops are responding to the disaster in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. While those states all have units deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, the National Guard said that it has not yet deployed all of its reserves to the Gulf Coast.

In addition to nearly 3,800 Louisiana National Guard troops already at work on relief efforts, the state has another 2,700 troops on hand. "Louisiana has 6,500 guard members available," said bureau spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Milord. "They have only used up about half of their force available." Mississippi still has another 5,000 troops in reserve, Milord said. "There are still forces in each state for the state to draw on," Milord said. He said the Gulf Coast states could also ask other, less affected states for help too.

In fact, late Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that 10,000 troops from 13 states outside the area would be divided between the hard-hit areas in Mississippi and Louisiana. And the Department of Defense announced it would send help from the active-duty military, including helicopters, a mobile hospital and Navy ships.

But the hurricane may very well launch new discussions about how far the country can stretch the National Guard, as it does double duty fighting terrorists and responding to forest fires and killer storms. (All of the Alabama National Guard units responding to Katrina have already served in Iraq, according to the Washington Post.)

National Guard units are the descendants of militias from the 13 original colonies. As opposed to active-duty soldiers, state National Guard units report to their governors during peacetime assignments -- such as responding to hurricanes. Soldiers hold regular civilian jobs and train mostly on weekends. When units are activated by the federal government for war, the president has ultimate authority.

The National Guard fought in the first Gulf War, but Iraq is the first wide-scale and long-term deployment of the National Guard in a foreign war since the Korean War. More than 250,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized for active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 40,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard have served more than one duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Today, 146,000 National Guard troops are mobilized for war efforts, according to the Department of Defense.

The pace has been brutal for soldiers who thought they were more likely to chase looters in New Orleans after a hurricane than watch out for roadside bombs during a year in Iraq. "Very possibly, the major casualty of this war is going to be the National Guard," said University of Maryland military sociology professor David R. Segal. "They have pretty much used up their combat-ready brigades."

The deployments have been increasingly worrisome to governors who rely on National Guard troops to respond to natural disasters at home. Governors shared their trepidation in a July meeting of the National Governors Association in Des Moines. Idaho Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne told the Associated Press that National Guard troops had been so taxed overseas that he feared they would not be available when needed at home. "You haven't seen these kinds of participation from the states since the Civil War," he said.

John Pike, director of, a defense information Web site, said it is too early to tell if there will be enough National Guard troops in the area to respond to Katrina. But he hopes that it will spark a debate about how to fix the National Guard. "I don't know if they are actually going to turn out to be short-handed" along the Gulf Coast, Pike said. "I would imagine that there are governors who are watching their state armies dissolve on them. I think it is going to flow up the food chain that we have a problem that has got to be fixed."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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Hurricanes Natural Disasters New Orleans