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Reserves, National Guard feel the strain

A half-million called up since the 9/11 attacks

National Guard Captain Bart Bartram was greeted by his children, Karsten, 2, and Tristan, 6, after his unit came home this month. National Guard Captain Bart Bartram was greeted by his children, Karsten, 2, and Tristan, 6, after his unit came home this month. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- The nation's National Guard and Reserve forces are displaying signs of strain after five years of deployments in what has become the biggest active-duty mobilization since the Korean War.

More than 500,000 Guard and Reserve troops have served in active duty since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and they've made up nearly half of the force fighting against terrorists and in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military leaders, pointing to an upswing in recruiting and retention, describe the nation's reserve force as the most professional and combat-seasoned in history, bonded by a keen sense of patriotism.

But at the same time, many Guard units are struggling with chronic equipment shortages and funding problems that threaten their ability to respond to disasters and other emergencies in their home states. Thousands of reservists are serving in patchwork units cobbled together in piecemeal fashion from other units, often with little or no sense of cohesion.

"I think you're seeing the leading-edge indicators of strain and fraying the edges," said Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general who chairs a commission looking into a possible overhaul of the Guard and Reserve. "And, yes, they are doing a good job of recruiting and retention, but at what cost and how long can they sustain it?"

The widening concerns over the reserve component come at a time when US military leaders are pressing for even more reinforcements from the Guard and Reserves to help ease the pressure on active-duty forces.

General Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's top general, warned Punaro's commission on Thursday that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "will break" the active-duty force unless the Pentagon changes its mobilization policy to allow more involuntary call-ups from the Guard and Reserve. Schoomaker also wants to add thousands of active-duty forces.

Lieutenant General David Poythress, the state adjutant general for the Georgia National Guard, said he agreed with Schoomaker that there need to be changes in the Army's structure, since it's configured to fight high-intensity, short-duration wars, not the grinding guerrilla conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he expressed concern that the National Guard may be carrying too much of the load.

"You need readily available manpower on both the active and the reserve side," Poythress said. "There is a danger of breaking the Army, but there is an equivalent danger of breaking the Guard. Guardsmen don't sign up to be full-time soldiers. If that's what they wanted, they'd join the active Army."

Reserve advocates are noticing indications that some 30-something junior officers and noncommissioned officers are thinking about pulling the plug on their reserve status to keep from falling behind on the civilian career ladder.

"They're at a point in their civilian career where they're making their mark," said Lieutenant General Charles G. Rodriguez of Austin, adjutant general for the Texas National Guard. "Now is the time for them to punch their tickets and do all the hard things in their civilian jobs. If they're not there, they can't punch those tickets."

Of the 88,500 currently mobilized, California has the largest contingent (4,559), followed by Texas (3,935), Pennsylvania (3,578), and Minnesota (3,079).

The Army National Guard and Army Reserve represent the biggest share of deployments, but all of the other services also have sent thousands of their reservists into active-duty service. More than 4,000 personnel have been deployed from Naval Air Station Fort Worth, the nation's largest joint reserve base, which serves as home to some 20 major units attached to the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Texas Air National Guard.

Lieutenant General Jack C. Stultz, commander of the Army Reserve who's also a 25-year employee of Procter and Gamble in Orlando, Fla., said the men and women in today's Reserve and Guard are vastly different from the Reserve unit he joined in 1979. Back then, he said, the unit commander opened the annual two-week active tour by asking who'd buy the beer for the end-of-tour party.

"These kids are the next Greatest Generation," Stultz said, referring to a name commonly given to America's World War II generation. "We've got a different caliber of soldier than we did in 1979."

Thousands joined up in the patriotic surge after the terrorist attacks. Members of the Guard have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and also have served in antiterrorism missions in Africa and peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.

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