Protests Grow Over Yearlong Army Tours
By Vernon Loeb
Angry protests mounted this week among families of Army National Guard and Reserve troops as the full impact of a new policy requiring those forces to serve yearlong tours in Iraq began to hit home across the country.
In Kansas, family members of soldiers in the 129th Transportation Company, an Army Reserve unit, set up a Web site and almost immediately gathered 8,000 signatures on the Internet demanding that the Army scrap 12-month tours.
In Michigan, the wife of a soldier in the 1438th Engineer Detachment, an Army National Guard unit, said three-quarters of her husbands fellow soldiers are planning to quit as soon as they return from tours in Iraq that could be extended by four months under the new policy.
And in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) said after meeting with angry National Guard families in Orlando and Tampa that he would put a hold on the nomination of James G. Roche to become Army secretary if the policy is not modified.
You cant rely on these occupations in the future to be done by the Guard and Reserves, Nelson said Friday in an interview. They have a specialized niche, and in times of war, thats one thing. But in times of long, lengthy occupations, you cant take them away from their employers [and their families]. Otherwise, theyre not going to reenlist.
The gathering storm of protest comes after months of concern inside and outside the Army that an over-reliance on Guard and Reserve forces by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism could adversely affect retention and recruiting. Some officials have expressed concern that this could break the Guard and Reserve system, which augments the active-duty force.
The National Guard comprises eight Army combat divisions and has a total strength of 350,000 troops. Guard units fall under the command of governors until their services are required under federal law by the Defense Department. The Army Reserve, with a total strength of 205,000 troops, consists primarily of combat support units in engineering, military police services, medical support, transportation, civil affairs and psychological operations.
About 128,430 service members from the Army Reserve and the National Guard are on active duty, including about 20,000 in Iraq and Kuwait subject to the 12 months-in-theater policy.
Army officials have said in recent weeks that lengthy overseas tours in Afghanistan and Iraq have had no discernible impact on recruitment for both the active-duty and Reserve forces. But the same cannot be said for the National Guard, which appears to be falling short of its annual goal by more than 20 percent, having signed up only 47,907 people toward a recruiting goal of 62,000 by the end of August.
Retention may be another matter. Reservists and their family members predict that the new policy is likely to have a devastating impact as individuals drop out of the Reserves after they return. It has been impossible to gauge the effect on retention thus far, they say, because there is a wartime stop-loss provision in effect on mobilized units that bars reservists from leaving the force even after their service requirements have been met.
Before the policy was implemented, virtually all Guard and Reserve forces had been mobilized for 12 months. Most went to Iraq or Kuwait believing their overseas deployments would last about six months. Six-month overseas tours had been the norm for Guard and Reserve troops before the Iraq war.
Under the new policy, total mobilization time for troops could increase from one to six months, because time spent in the United States no longer counts against the 12-month requirement. Most of the troops spent significant time on duty in the United States before going to Iraq.
Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserves, said in an interview that the families of Reserve forces have not been given adequate information about either the 12-month policy or the steps being taken to shorten future mobilizations. A video explaining both, he said, will soon be sent to family members nationwide.
But Helmly said the Army has no choice but to go to 12-month tours in Iraq for Guard and Reserve forces. They are necessary both to sustain overall troop requirements and to provide continuity and stability so that some rebuilding could begin to occur.
Nelson said changing the rules of foreign deployments once Guard and Reserve troops are overseas is not fair. From a Florida perspective, he also questioned why Guard units from other states are being brought home before those from his home state, despite the fact that the Florida National Guard was the first to deploy in December.
In Kansas, Amanda Bellew, wife of Army Spec. Jason Bellew, a member of the 129th Transportation Company, said she and other family members are hoping to gather 50,000 signatures on their Web site, <http://www.129bringthemhome.com>, to present to Congress in opposition to the extended tours.
Amanda Bellew said the tours seem particularly onerous, since the 129th, made up of troops who drive and maintain heavy-equipment transports for hauling 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks, has recently been short of appropriate missions.
We have pictures of a golf cart tied down in the middle of this trailer, she said. They hauled SUVs for high-ranking officers on one mission, and by the time they got where they were going, all the windows [of the SUVs] were busted out, from things being thrown at them.
The unit was mobilized in January, she said, but did not leave for Iraq until April. We were all planning for December or January homecomings, she said. But now theyre talking about April 2004, and possibly as late as January 2005. Were not into bad-mouthing the Army or anything like that, but the three months they were away from home [in the United States] should count in that year.
Washington Post, September 20, 2003