By Megan Scully
May 22, 2007With National Guard units continuing to deploy overseas in large numbers, a Washington-based think tank Monday urged the federal government to provide funding for a civilian corps in every state to serve as a backup to the Guard during natural disasters and other domestic crises.
In its report "Caught off Guard: The Link Between our National Security and Our National Guard," the Center for American Progress recommended increasing the Homeland Security budget by $1 billion to establish a corps of doctors, firefighters, city planners and other emergency officials in each state.
Over the last several years, 23 states and Puerto Rico have set up -- and funded -- civilian corps, which typically report to the top National Guard official in each state and fill in any gaps left when Guard units deploy, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Pentagon's personnel chief during the Reagan administration. In Virginia alone, the volunteers logged roughly 1.3 million working hours last year.
The extra $1 billion for the Homeland Security Department would help set up these civilian teams in other states and also contribute needed money to train volunteers, Korb said.
With their exclusive focus on responding to local emergencies, such civilian teams are different from the "Civilian Reserve Corps" that President Bush proposed in his State of the Union address in January. Bush tried to jumpstart a moribund proposal to create a unit of civilian volunteers to augment U.S. reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The report released Monday is yet another in a string of sobering assessments on the state of the National Guard, which is struggling to meet the demands of both state and federal mission requirements.
More than 417,000 National Guard and Reserve troops have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan -- roughly 80 percent of the military's reservists. Of those, more than 84,200 troops have deployed more than once, according to the study.
Within the National Guard, all 16 of the force's enhanced brigades -- which have been set up to deploy rapidly -- have deployed overseas at least once in the last several years.
The constant deployments have contributed to a $40 billion equipment shortfall for the Army and Air Guard. On average, Army Guard units, which have borne the brunt of the overseas deployments, have only 40 percent of their equipment on hand.
"Ground troop levels in both [Iraq and Afghanistan] could not be sustained at the current rate without the numbers and skills provided by the men and women of the Army National Guard," according to the report. "Continued heavy use of Guard forces, however, has raised concerns about whether it can successfully perform both its domestic and international missions effectively."
To alleviate stress on the Guard forces, the report recommends increasing active Army and Marine Corps end-strength levels by at least 100,000 troops -- slightly higher than the 92,000 additional troops requested by the White House.
The report also suggests making the military's TRICARE healthcare system available to Guard troops once they join. That effort, Korb said, would cost roughly $5 billion over the next five years.
By Megan Scully
May 22, 2007