Reality Check

Army Reserve chief adjusts image, expectations and size of part-time force.

It's no secret that the past few years have been tough ones for military reservists and their families. Statistically, that's especially true for the 205,000-strong Army Reserve, 143,000 of whom have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001. Of those, 105 have been killed and about 800 seriously wounded-a casualty rate not seen since the Korean War. Of the 132,000 reservists and National Guard troops from all the services on active duty now, more than 40,000 are members of the Army Reserve, most of whom are serving in Iraq.

In a wide-ranging interview with editors and writers at Government Executive and its sister publications in January, Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly discussed the pressure on members of the Army Reserve and what Army leaders are doing to address it.

The effects of casualties on morale have been significant, Helmly says: "The pressure on the institution accrues from that [fact] . . . we're all in the Army Reserve knowing someone who has lost their life [or] a limb. People talk to each other. The institution starts to be stressed by that."

For years, the Army's recruiting campaigns targeting reservists stressed perks such as pay and education benefits. "We created the perception that you probably would not be called for duty, and if you were, it wouldn't hurt much because we operate in a secure rear area," Helmly says. But the magnitude and violence of military operations in Iraq changed all that, resulting in "a big perception of broken expectations," he says. In late 2002, the Army Reserve overhauled its recruitment advertising and began stressing themes such as duty, honor and love of country.

When Helmly became chief in May 2002, the Army Reserve structure required 219,000 soldiers to fill all the units on the books-yet its congressionally authorized end strength was 205,000 troops. Given that some soldiers will always be in training or fulfilling mandatory educational requirements-and therefore not available to serve in units-the actual number of troops needed to meet the Army Reserve mission was even higher.

The problem was compounded by inaccurate bookkeeping, Helmly says. Newly recruited troops were added to the rolls as they signed an enlistment contract, even if they weren't planning to enter the force and begin training for a year or more. Soldiers who left the force were kept on the rolls for as long as 273 days after they left service.

"The first year I came into this job, we had 212,000 [according to official records], yet we couldn't put 180,000 soldiers on the ground with weapons and equipment in hand," he says. Of the 143,000 Army reservists mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 50 percent have been shifted from one unit to another to field full units. Besides initiating better accounting methods to accurately measure the size of the force, Helmly has offered Army leaders proposals to restructure the force with fewer troops. "It is my judgment that we need to live within our means," he says.

Cuts had not been finalized by press time and Helmly declined to talk numbers, but he says he is comfortable with the force size under discussion among Army leaders. In addition, the Army Reserve has begun a far-reaching restructuring plan to reduce overhead and close 176 excess facilities, while consolidating functions in upgraded or new facilities.

Helmly has a reputation for candor, something that hasn't always endeared him to his superiors. He made headlines a year ago when someone leaked to the press a memo he wrote to the Army chief of staff complaining about mobilization policies that threatened to rapidly turn the Army Reserve into a "broken force."

"I'd be less than honest if I said all of my concerns had been assuaged," he says, "but then the concerns that I expressed are not the kinds of matters that can be solved in a year's time."

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