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US Army Wants To Send Reserve Forces Back To Iraq
File image of a US Soldier engaged in civilian police duties.
File image of a US Soldier engaged in civilian police duties.
by Pamela Hess
Washington (UPI) Dec 28, 2006
Strapped for soldiers, the U.S. Army wants new authority to send National Guard and Reserve soldiers back to Iraq for repeat deployments, even those who have already served the maximum time allowed by the Pentagon.

A national commission looking at National Guard and Reserve issues will decide in March whether to endorse the Army's plan, a change that could affect the 522,000 citizen-soldiers in the Army National Guard and Reserve, and more broadly the 800,000 reservists serving in all the military services.

The policy in question limits reservists to 24 months cumulative mobilization on active duty, and they may not be involuntarily deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once. If a reserve soldier is to serve more than that, they must volunteer. The Pentagon's desire is to be even more strict, with active duty service limited to one year out of every six -- that is, a year deployed followed by five years at home, unless a soldier volunteers for additional time. They are not expected to deploy beyond those limits, in deference to their status as citizen-soldiers.

Many active-duty soldiers are deploying every other year, spending less than a year at home with their families in between combat rotations.

The policy change is supported by the U.S. military, in particular by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker who told the commission two weeks ago that if the policy was not changed the U.S. Army will break under the strain of the Iraq war.

More than 650,000 soldiers have served in the Iraq war since it began, with 185,000 of them from the National Guard. At one point in 2004, more than 60 percent of the soldiers in Iraq were Guard soldiers.

The volunteer-only policy was implemented immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Reserve forces were not forcibly mobilized. Some 20,000 individual reserve soldiers volunteered.

Those soldiers, however, came from already undermanned -- or "hollow" -- reserve units.

The Army has reduced in size by about half since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and a large portion of those reductions were made in the reserve component. Rather than shutting down whole units, which is neither politically nor practically feasible given their home-state responsibilities, the decision was made to maintain the structures but deplete the manpower in each one.

When the call for volunteers came after Sept. 11, "the best and the brightest" reserve soldiers stepped forward, further depleting already hollow units, Schoomaker said.

Two years later, the United States invaded Iraq and needed additional troops. Reserve units were involuntarily mobilized and the folly of the volunteer call-up became clear, Schoomaker said: the hollow units were pressed into service.

That kicked off a practice known in the military as cross-leveling -- taking individual soldiers from non-mobilized units to fill out the units being deployed.

While cross-leveling works on paper, the units that are deployed are less cohesive and have not trained together long enough to be ready, and safe, in a demanding combat environment, according to retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, the chairman of the Commission on National Guard and Reserves.

The practice turns the military ethos of "training as we fight" on its head, according to military witnesses who have testified to the commission. A Marine infantry battalion commander called the cross-leveling practice "evil" because of the risk it imposed on units, and others told the commission in previous hearings that there was a direct relationship between combat casualties and cross leveling because of a breakdown in unit cohesion, Punaro said.

Schoomaker agrees.

"All of this runs counter to the military necessity of deploying trained, ready and cohesive units. In my professional military judgment we must not perpetuate the mistakes of our past mobilization policies," he told the commission. "The practice of (relying) on individual volunteers got us to where we are today. In my view we must deploy the force as cohesive units not as individual volunteers."

In 2002, just 2 percent of soldiers in deployed Army Reserve units were cross-leveled into the formation. In 2003, that number jumped to 39 percent. In the last two rotations, more than 62 percent of reserve soldiers in deployed Army units were individual augmentees plucked from their home units to serve in another.

In some units the cross leveling is almost total.

One Army National Guard transportation company of 170 soldiers tapped for combat had only seven soldiers that were available. The unit was filled out with Guard soldiers from 65 units from 49 different locations, according to Punaro.

The Pentagon's civilian leadership, however, oppose any changes to the policy and says the uniform military is cavalierly proposing to break a promise made to reservists when they signed up.

"The issue here is what commitments have we made to the Guard, Reserve and active communities, and should we honor those commitments?" said David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel, in testimony to the commission Dec. 13. "There is a tone, to speak very candidly, in the operational chain of command, that we should not honor those commitments, and what my office has recommended consistently and the secretary has underscored, is we need to honor those commitments."

"It's a clash between what the operational community would prefer and what the personnel community recognizes in reality as a volunteer force: You must not overuse any one community or we will not persuade young Americans to join or continue to serve," Chu said.

Schoomaker said Dec. 14 that the nation needs to rethink that commitment, given the "long war" on terrorism undertaken on Sept. 11.

"The nation must begin by acknowledging these are increasingly dangerous times and that we are closer to the beginning than we are to the end of the long war," he said.

Speaking for himself and not the commission, Punaro told UPI last week he will come out strongly against cross-leveling in commission debates in the next few months.

"You need to side with the troops," he said. "We have a moral obligation to send the best led, best equipped, best trained, most cohesive units into combat. If that means that on a unit basis some Guard and Reserve soldiers might have to go more frequently in the short-term, I think that's the choice I have to make."

He said he was surprised how vehemently the Army chief of staff made his case against the Office of the Secretary of Defense's cross-leveling policy at the Dec. 14 hearing.

"I was not aware Schoomaker was gonna unload the rifles right on it," he said. "He came rolling in the next day even more strongly than I was."

A final report is due January 2008 but the commission will weigh in with an interim report on March 1 addressing 15 issues that affect the reserves, the volunteer mobilization policy chief among them.

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