As military begins to draw down, National Guard ramps up

Overall force levels in Iraq returning to pre-surge levels, but Guard units are mobilizing in large numbers.

The Iraq drawdown has begun. By New Year's, a brigade of more than 3,000 U.S. troops will have left Iraq without a comparable unit taking its place. By mid-2008, the Bush administration pledges that force levels in Iraq will have returned to what they were before the 2007 "surge." Republican political candidates across the country are hoping that this troop reduction -- from a high of 164,000 last August to 130,000-plus next July -- will relieve the political pressure from a still-unpopular war at a critical moment in their 2008 campaigns.

But there's a snag. While the military as a whole is ramping down, its most politically sensitive component -- the citizen-soldiers of the Army National Guard -- is ramping up. "Today we stand at 46,000 mobilized," said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, the Pentagon's director of the Army Guard. "I see us adding about 10,000 to that."

More than 2,600 members of the Oklahoma-based 45th Infantry Brigade, for example, have already been called to active duty, leaving their families and civilian employers behind for the holidays while they conduct their final predeployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas. In January, they will head to Iraq. Three more brigades of more than 3,000 soldiers apiece -- one each from Arkansas, Indiana, and Ohio -- will follow them sometime in early 2008, in the midst of the intense primary election season.

Then, sometime in the second half of the year, another seven states will mobilize full brigades: Hawaii, Illinois (whose troops are bound for Afghanistan, not Iraq), New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. Oklahoma will also send a second, smaller brigade. Some 15,000 Guard soldiers from brigades in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, and Wisconsin have been alerted that the Pentagon will call them up in 2009.

To prevent a gap in war-zone coverage, at least some of the Guard units set to deploy in late 2008 will have to mobilize before the early-2008 Guard brigades can come home -- a potentially months-long overlap that will likely spike the number of Guard troops on active duty well above Vaughn's target cap of 55,000. The Army National Guard has not called up so many soldiers at once since 2005, when the Army was in the midst of reorganizing all of its combat divisions around the world. And the makeup of the Guard forces differs this time: In contrast to the sometimes superannuated and inexperienced "weekend warriors" of the past, many of the troops are young recruits, and most of the officers and senior sergeants are veterans on their second tours in Iraq.

Since September 11, 2001, the military has relied heavily on reservists to conduct overseas operations. More than 450,000 of these part-time soldiers -- they generally train during one weekend a month and two weeks of active duty a year -- have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11; more than 800 of them have died. Each of the armed services, including the Coast Guard, has reached deep into its reserve component to meet the needs of President Bush's global war on terrorism. In the prolonged ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no reservists have spent their blood and sweat more unreservedly than those of the Army National Guard, which has deployed more than 190,000 soldiers and lost nearly 500.

Unlike most reserve components, which largely consist of specialist support troops, the Army Guard maintains its own full-strength combat brigades, and planners have come to use them as substitutes for regular Army brigades. The Guard supplied just 10 percent of Army troops in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in 2004, the regular Army launched a massive midwar reorganization into more compact, self-sufficient, and deployable brigades, and the Guard took up the slack in the war zone. In January 2005, some 65,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan -- a record 34 percent of Army personnel deployed -- were Guard troops.

That proportion plummeted to 16 percent by August 2007, as exhausted Guard units went home while the regular Army poured five brigades into Baghdad. But for months, planners, commanders, and Guard advocates have been warning that the citizen-soldiers' turn would come again -- by 2010 at the latest, and probably much earlier. Earlier, it turns out, is next year.

The previous reservist surge pushed the Army National Guard to its limits. "We couldn't have kept that level of participation up," Vaughn said. In 2005, "the chief of staff of the Army said, 'We won't have to have this level of commitment from the Guard for quite some time.' Well, here we are two years later, and the level of commitment is coming back up."

Strain On Families

The Cold War-era military kept its reservists in cold storage for World War III, requiring them to train on weekends but rarely to mobilize for real-life conflict. Today's reservists are essential to day-to-day military operations. But as Arnold Punaro, a former Senate staffer and a major general in the Marine Corps Reserve, points out, "We have not had a national debate about whether or not we want an 'operational reserve.' We backed into it." Punaro chairs the congressionally chartered Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which declared current practices "not sustainable" in its March 2007 interim report. (The final report is due in January.) "We say the operational reserve is neither feasible nor sustainable without substantial, fundamental changes in just about everything from mobilizing and demobilizing, to equipping, to training, to funding, to personnel management," Punaro told National Journal. "None of those changes has occurred."

The Guard's own commanders echo that anxiety.

"My fear is for the guys and gals and their families who have been in the Guard for years," said Maj. Gen. John Libby, the adjutant-general of the Maine National Guard. "It was easy to wrap the flag around that first deployment and feel good about where you've been and what you've done. I think the second deployments, given the tenor of the political discussion [of the war] and the strain on families and employers, are going to be more difficult."

Despite the strains on the Army Guard nationwide, it has managed a turnaround in recruitment. After stumbling badly in 2004 and 2005 -- not coincidentally, the years of peak commitment to Iraq -- and falling 17,000 below its authorized strength of 350,000 soldiers, the Army Guard is now nearly 3,000 soldiers over strength.

Those figures, however, mask the increasing replacement of experienced but exhausted veterans with fresh recruits. Historically, nearly two-thirds of Army Guard soldiers had experience in the regular military. But today, two-thirds of enlistees bring no military experience. "We have more soldiers with less than eight years' experience than [with] over eight years', for the first time," Vaughn said, adding, "We have more soldiers that are unmarried than married for the first time in our modern history."

While the military as a whole is ramping down its presence in Iraq, its most politically sensitive component - the citizen-soldiers of the Army National Guard - is ramping up from 46,000 to 55,000 troops.

That statistic hints that military service and married life are increasingly incompatible. Army Guard troops from sergeants to colonels to generals told National Journal that the troops' morale is high -- but that they worry about their families' ability to endure repeated deployments. "As far as the soldiers, emotionally, physically, mentally, we will all be ready," said Col. Bruce Oliveira, commander of Hawaii's 29th Brigade, which next year heads to Iraq for the second time. "I would be more concerned with the families. All our spouses were terrific the last time we deployed, and to ask them to do it again is going to be a challenge." Oliveira worries about his own wife. "My first deployment, I left her with three teenagers," he said. "We're trained to do our mission, but our wives are not trained to be single parents for a year."

Surveys of reservists' spouses "show a significant drop in support for reserve service," warned the Commission on the Guard and Reserve. Although a recent study by the Rand think tank called into question the presumed link between overseas deployments and divorce, three of the 10 Guard sergeants who spoke to National Journal said that their marriages had broken up at least partly because of their service abroad.

"I truly love the military," said Staff Sgt. Curtis Coleman, an Arkansas Guard soldier who will return to Iraq for his second tour next year. As for his ex-wife, he said, "Our career paths were headed in different directions, because mine ultimately is retirement from the military, or service until I can no longer stand, and hers is college. I didn't want to hold her back from great things -- because she'll do great things -- having to wait on me."

Streamlining Mobilization

For more than 40 years, balancing civilian life with reserve service was straightforward. From the end of the Korean War in 1953 until the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, Guard troops and other reservists drilled two weekend days a month plus two weeks a year, but almost never were called up to deploy abroad. After the brief Gulf War, 4,500 Guard troops deployed as peacekeepers in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Sinai. "Even there, the assumption was that it was going to be six months [per deployment] and it wasn't going to be repeated," said David Segal, a sociology professor and the director of the University of Maryland Center for Research on Military Organization. "It's only with Operation Iraqi Freedom that we have changed the rules massively and said we will deploy Guard units for a year or more, and do it repeatedly."

A new "Army Force Generation" scheme, known as ARFORGEN, calls for every unit in the Army Guard and Army Reserve to spend four years at home and one year on active duty. That deployment pace is far higher than the wildest expectations of the 1990s -- and far lower than the reality thus far in the 21st century. "According to the ARFORGEN model, we're getting prepared for a 2010 ready date," Oliveira said. Instead, this October the Hawaiians were alerted to deploy in mid-2008, which will be just two and a half years after they came home from Iraq.

During Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as Defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, the Pentagon policy was that no Reserve or Guard member would have to spend more than 24 months, cumulative, on active duty. As the war dragged on, however, the military found it increasingly nightmarish to organize deployments around a million reservists' individual schedules. Planners would tap a unit to deploy only to discover that many of its personnel had previously been mobilized, either as individual volunteers for active duty or as part of another Guard unit to which they had belonged.

Each person with too much time on active duty had to be left behind, ripping apart teams that had trained together, sometimes for years. Planners then had to fill the resulting holes. To bring one unit up to full strength to deploy, they had to strip individual troops or entire subunits out of several other units -- which would then be shorthanded when their turn came to mobilize, requiring yet more hole-filling at the expense of yet more units. Each short-term solution made the long-term problem worse.

"There was always this perception that there'd just be one last push and then we'd get this thing fixed," said Col. Ted Martinell, chief of plans, mobilization, and readiness for the Army Guard. Instead, Rumsfeld's Iraq insurgency of "dead-enders" kept fighting, and the mobilization problem kept growing and growing, like a snowball kicked downhill.

The administrative nightmare was particularly brutal in the Army National Guard, where a typical mobilization involved up to six months of full-time training at an active-duty base in the United States, then another 12 months deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That meant that even seven months of active-duty service -- say, as a volunteer augmenting the Pentagon staff after 9/11 -- would render an individual Guard soldier ineligible for an 18-month deployment with the rest of his unit because he would exceed Rumsfeld's 24-month cap. It also meant that no unit could deploy more than once. After the peak demands of 2004 and early 2005, the Army Guard was simply running out of units.

So just weeks after succeeding Rumsfeld in December 2006, Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw out his predecessor's mobilization policy. Gates's January 2007 announcement cut the Gordian snarl by ceasing to manage an individual reservist's cumulative time on active duty. Instead, planners would track time served for each unit as a whole. That allows teams that trained together to mobilize together, and dramatically eases the administrative burden -- at the price of redeploying some individuals who had already served significant active-duty time.

Although Gates took away some protection for reservists with one hand, he gave back with the other: Under the new policy, no unit may spend more than 12 consecutive months on active duty, a 33 percent cut from the 18-month mobilizations that had become standard in the Army National Guard. The nine adjutants-general who spoke to National Journal applauded the change. "That was one of the best moves" Gates could have made, said Maj. Gen. Steven Doohen, adjutant-general of South Dakota's Guard. "It gives some predictability, that [soldiers are] going to be gone just a year, and that is very important to employers and families."

But to shorten mobilizations, something had to give -- and that was training time. "It places a little more responsibility on the states that these individuals are trained and ready to go when they leave the state," Doohen said. The four Guard brigades that will deploy in early 2008 will be the first full-scale test of Gates's grand trade-off.

Tightening Training

Cutting training time for troops about to go into harm's way goes against every instinct of the modern American military. But in interview after interview, Army National Guard soldiers ranking from sergeants to state commanders said that spending up to six months training full-time before deploying to Iraq was wasted time.

"We were assumed to be basic trainees," said Maj. Damon Cluck, a battalion commander in the Arkansas National Guard. All the time that Guard troops had spent on their weekends and in their annual drills qualifying for the individual skills that the Army requires "might as well not have happened," Cluck said. "We still had to do it again." And because the Guard troops were shipped to active-duty Army bases for the predeployment training, they faced prolonged bottlenecks at overcrowded training facilities. "It took us a month to do individual and crew-served weapons qualification," he said. "That's a task we normally knock off in about three weekends." Of five months that soldiers spent away from family and employers, Cluck said, only about six weeks were genuinely valuable.

The root problem was the regular Army's decades-old distrust of the weekend warriors' ability. During the 1991 Gulf War, large numbers of Guard forces were mobilized, but they were mostly kept in supporting roles. The Army deemed three of the Guard's combat brigades to be unready and forced them to do so much extra training that they missed the conflict altogether. In the late 1990s, when the Guard units deployed as peacekeepers to Kosovo, Bosnia, and the Sinai, "the active Army resisted that tremendously; they didn't think the Guard could do it," Segal said. "But we learned that the Guard could be deployed overseas."

Those tentative deployments in the 1990s laid the foundation for radical change in how the Guard prepared for war. "When I first got to the brigade back in 1985, the training wasn't very realistic," said Col. Kendall Penn, who as commander of the Arkansas 39th Brigade is Cluck's superior officer. "Since then the level of professionalism has increased dramatically. All of the soldiers now realize that the end state of their training is skill sets they're going to actually use in combat."

Secretary Gates's policy challenges the Guard to live up to these words. Instead of six months of training under the supervision of regular Army officers before they deploy, Guard units train for just two or three months in the U.S. before they deploy to Iraq. That requires them to get all of their soldiers up to speed on basic combat skills before mobilization. Isn't that a lot to accomplish in two weekend days a month plus two weeks a year? "It is," Cluck said, "but a lot of it is stuff that we'd do every year whether we were deploying [or not]."

The federal government is funding states' efforts to give Guard soldiers additional weekend drills and extended annual training periods. "We'll probably increase all the training time by at least 25 percent," said Hawaii's adjutant, Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee. "You can equate that to extra [weekend] drills and probably two to three weeks of additional annual training."

Several soldiers grumbled to National Journal, however, that this method of sprinkling extra training periods throughout the year before deployment creates a painful back-and-forth between civilian and military life. "A lot of kids in my platoon, their employers are really not happy with how we're training right now," said Sgt. 1st Class Spencer Kohlheim, an Indiana Guard soldier preparing for his second deployment, this time to Iraq. (Kohlheim and his wife separated after his first tour, in Afghanistan.) If he asked his troops if they would rather be put on full-time active-duty status to train, Kohlheim said, "I'd have 100 percent raise their hands."

The Arkansas Guard is trying a unique alternative program: With its timeline to deployment too short to space out training periods throughout the year, the state has mobilized Penn's brigade for 90 extra days -- but on state, not federal, active duty, during which they'll train at local armories rather than at distant Army bases. The troops are getting full-time military pay and benefits, and their employers have a solid block of time for which to hire temporary workers instead of coping with reservists' off-again, on-again attendance.

Best of all, Cluck said, "most of our soldiers go home and sleep in their own bed at night," instead of spending six months at an Army base far from home with only a few days of leave. Maintaining those home ties is especially important in the National Guard, which draws its strength from the intensely local loyalties of its troops and their families.

Taking A Village

Since the first colonial militia mustered on the village green, National Guard units have been hometown troops. The regular Army runs a nationwide recruiting program, ships soldiers to centralized boot camps, and then reassigns them from base to base every three or four years. An Army National Guard unit recruits from its local community and may keep the same soldiers together for decades. That those communities keep producing volunteers six years into a global war speaks to the depth of their military traditions.

"My father was in the Army in the 1950s, my grandfather was a World War II veteran, my uncle was a World War II veteran," said 1st Sgt. Darin Carlson, a soldier with 17 years in the Indiana Guard who has served since 9/11 in Bosnia and Iraq, and who is headed for Iraq again next year. (The back-to-back deployments were a factor in his divorce.) "Growing up, that was what I always wanted to be."

The next generation seems to feel the same way. "We continue to have soldiers coming into the Guard in record numbers," Carlson said. "When you have a group of high school kids and three or four of them join one unit, all their buddies want to be part of that." Once they are in, those bonds only tighten: Of about a hundred soldiers in Carlson's company, "four or five" who left the Guard after the last deployment re-enlisted when they learned the unit might go again. "In the Guard, you get that local family feel, where those guys become close," Carlson said. "Then when that unit goes, that town goes."

Such ties are strongest in small towns -- not in more-rural areas, where people live too far apart to converge easily at a local armory, and not in large cities, with their abundance of social and economic alternatives. "In some communities, the local Guard unit is one of the major sources of social cohesion," said the University of Maryland's Segal. "Being in the Guard is how one earns one's bona fides as a member of the community." But precisely because those bonds are so tight, the Guard does not provide the same social mobility that the regular military does. Segal said, "If you're looking for a way out [of your circumstances], the active duty is a better bet." All of these factors mean that the Army Guard has about half the percentage of African-Americans as the regular Army, significantly fewer Hispanics, and a lower ratio of women to men.

As a rule of thumb, the lower a state's population density and the lower its percentage of minorities, the higher the percentage of its population likely to be serving in the Army National Guard. Nationwide, the 350,000-strong Army Guard averages just below 12 soldiers per 10,000 people. In North Dakota, however, that ratio is 52 soldiers per 10,000; in California, it's only four.

So although the Army National Guard is a consummately American institution, it does not reflect America as a whole. It reflects instead a certain slice of society from which it disproportionately draws, and on which the burden of Guard service disproportionately falls. Not all of America is at war.

So far, however, even after six years, the hometowns that are at war are staying in the fight. "They're proud of their soldiers. The community feeling hasn't backed off at all," Carlson said. As his brigade prepares for its second tour in Iraq, he said, "support here in Indiana is higher than when we went the first time. I don't see why they couldn't keep it up for a long time, to be honest with you."

That enduring support does not, however, wipe out the cost of service. "I have four children," said Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Rogers, now mobilized and training for his second deployment with Oklahoma's 45th Brigade. "On my last [tour in Iraq], from what my wife tells me, the three little ones, they were so little they didn't understand what was going on. My oldest, he did. When I first left, he had nightmares." This time, Rogers said, "he'll be 12 in January. He accepts it. He really helps my wife out a lot with the younger kids. I think we're good."

Rogers is working with the Pentagon's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program to persuade his employer to give him back his civilian job when he returns to the States. Soldiers' requests for such help from the Employer Support office have doubled since 2004. "If we're going to call them up so frequently, maybe they're not part-time soldiers," said Lee, the adjutant-general of the Hawaii Guard. "Maybe the main employer is the United States Army" -- in which case, Lee added, "we need better compensation." Lee and his fellow Guard generals are still trying to figure out what that new social and economic contract with their troops should be.

In the meantime, Rogers says, like tens of thousands of other Army Guard soldiers, "I don't have a problem with going back over there."

National Journal Correspondent Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.