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Citizen Soldiers: The National Guard Has Borne the High Costs of Deployments to Afghanistan & Iraq

Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment, Illinois National Guard are assigned to a provincial reconstruction team’s security forces platoon. Gardez, Afghanistan, April 13, 2009.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Americans often hear that deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq are overstressing the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard.

Typical of such critics is military historian Jerry Morelock of Fulton, Mo. He joined the Florida National Guard as a private in 1963 before going to West Point and then on to an Army career that took him to the rank of colonel. 

“The way we’re using the National Guard isn’t the way it was intended be used,” Morelock says, “and it’s putting an inordinate strain on Guard members. They’re not professional soldiers. They have day jobs.”

David Segal of the University of Maryland specializes in the sociology of the armed forces. He says: “The costs of deployment to a National Guard soldier are in many ways higher than they are to regular forces personnel. For regulars, going to war is their job. But a guardsman has to leave a job or college or whatever.” 

When National Guard soldiers deploy, the disruption extends to their employers and especially to their families. And overseas, the soldiers run the risk of being killed or wounded.

Even so, other military analysts and people inside the National Guard insist that the Guard is holding its own, even thriving. First, they point to recruiting and re-enlistments.

“We’ve been running between 102 and 108 percent” of the goals, says Maj. Gen. William L. Enyart. As adjutant general of Illinois, Enyart leads the state’s 10,000 Army Guard soldiers and 3,000 Air National Guard members.

Enyart says, “Last September, they called us from Washington and said, ‘Stop recruiting — hold up.’”

In Missouri, the same story comes from Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Schulte, the highest-ranking enlisted man in his state’s Army National Guard. “We’re at 102 percent of strength and have told our recruiters to slow down,” Schulte says. 

Like Illinois’ Enyart, Schulte concedes that recruiting had some bumps in the years just after Sept. 11, 2001. But now, Schulte says, “everybody in the National Guard today either enlisted or reenlisted knowing that they’re probably going to a combat zone.”

The numbers hold true nationally, says Rick Breitenfeldt of the Pentagon’s National Guard Bureau. “Recruiting and retention numbers are fantastic,” he says, with the Army Guard nationally at 363,000 soldiers and the Air Guard at 107,000 members. Indeed, in June, the Guard deliberately missed its goals so it could stay within the numbers authorized by Congress. 

Most of the experts concede that today’s rocky economy helps recruiting and re-enlistments. Sociologist Segal says, “Many Guardsmen today are, in effect, economic conscripts.” The greenest Guard recruit pulls in $179 for each one-weekend-a-month drill period. But most observers insist that Guard service goes beyond money. 

Military writer and novelist Ralph Peters — he retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel — says that in the Heartland, “some of the young men are coming home from the wars saying how cool it was — ‘Neat stuff, dude.’ They’ve got money, they’ve got combat patches, and casualties have been low in historic terms. Those elites on the East and West coasts underestimate the appeal of income and adventure to kids from the Midwest.”

A similar view comes from retired Army Reserve Col. Walter Schumm, who specializes in the armed forces as a sociologist at Kansas State University. He says that today’s Guard soldiers are younger and more likely to be single. “You have a lot of young French Foreign Legion types looking for adventure.”

Think-tank analyst James Carafano of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. “Some of it’s the economy,” he says. “But the numbers were up even when the economy was doing well. When people feel their service is useful and productive, they tend to stay.” 

You’ll hear much the same from the National Guard Association, a Washington-based private advocacy group. “The bad economy helps,” says association spokesman John Goheen. “But people in the National Guard like what they’re doing.”

And even with the slumping economy, says Goheen, “you can’t pay somebody enough to go to Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Another plus for today’s National Guard: a new reputation for military professionalism.

Writer Peters remembers working with the National Guard back in the mid-1980s, when Guard soldiers arrived at Army posts for their annual two-week training stints. “They were not ready for prime time,” he says. Now? “It’s all different now. They’re much better trained, much better equipped.”

Peters gets a second from national security consultant William Nash, who retired from the Army as a two-star general and later worked for the Council on Foreign Relations. “The National Guard has gotten very good,” Nash says. “There’s less and less disparity between their performance and that of the active-duty forces.”

Since 9/11, the Illinois Guard has deployed 19,000 people. Among them, 9,700 soldiers and 8,800 airmen have deployed more than once. (Air National Guard deployments tend to be brief — often 60 or 90 days.)

Although Illinois Guard soldiers have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only soldiers now deployed abroad are 480 artillerymen on peacekeeping duty in the Sinai Peninsula. The Illinois Air Guard has 280 members deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar. Although combat deployments to Iraq ended in August, through May, the Illinois Army Guard will send 340 soldiers to Afghanistan as an agricultural development team.

Was the National Guard meant to be deployed so much? 

Military historian Morelock says: “Traditionally, in a major war, the National Guard would mobilize — and when it was over, they’d go home. The Guard was never intended to be a solution to the failed policies of the Army leadership and their civilian bosses. They’ve failed to maintain the active-duty Army to the level needed. 

“That traces back to the end of the Cold War and pressure for a peace dividend. In 1980, the active-duty Army had 780,000 people. Now it has about 540,000 — and that’s up from a low of 490,000.”

When Gen. Eric Shinseki retired as Army chief of staff in 2003, he warned, “Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army.” Today’s active-duty Army has just 10 divisions. Segal, the Maryland sociologist, says, “If we’re going to play the role in the global system that we’ve been playing, we need a bigger Army.”

Peters, the military writer, believes that the current level of operations calls for an active-duty Army of 16 or 18 divisions.

Maj. Gen. Enyart of the Illinois Guard remembers when the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard formed a “strategic reserve,” which he explains this way: “If the Russians rolled through the Fulda Gap in Germany, we would have had nine months to get there.” 

Indeed, after the Korean War, the National Guard largely saw no combat. For the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson built a draftee Army and largely left the Guard at home. After Vietnam, the active-duty Army cut brigades from some of its divisions but tabbed National Guard brigades to “round out” those divisions in case of war. The Army also shifted many active-duty support jobs to the Army Reserve.

That shift to citizen-soldiers spared the Army from cutting whole divisions. Some analysts also think that in a “never again” fashion, the Army blindsided future presidents. The end of the draft in 1973 meant that no longer could a president go to war with an Army of anonymous conscripts. Instead, a president would have to mobilize National Guard and Reserve units — our friends and neighbors in hometowns across America. And before the president could mobilize those friends and neighbors, he’d need the support of the American public. 

Now, says Enyart, the National Guard functions as an “operational reserve.” His definition: “My reading is that the leadership sees us as subject to deployment every four or five years.”

Historian Morelock shakes his head at that prospect. “If we don’t match active-duty strength with the missions we’ve taken on globally,” he says, “we run the risk of eventually destroying the Guard.”

But the Heritage Foundation’s Carafano says: “Rather than asking whether the active Army is big enough, we ought to ask whether the National Guard and Reserve are big enough. They’re flexible — when you don’t need them, you can stand them down. They’re a cheaper force to maintain. The National Guard has proved itself. I think we ought to give it the resources it needs.”

Most of the analysts do see some downsides to the deployments. Peters says that although casualty rates are low, “people get killed and maimed.” (The Illinois National Guard has lost 33 soldiers and one airman in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three died of accidents or natural causes, and three committed suicide. All the rest were killed in action.) 

And constant deployments can set Guard members back in their civilian careers, although Enyart says many Illinois employers have been exceptionally supportive. He singles out State Farm Insurance in Bloomington as “marvelous.”

Writer Peters notes that deployments strain the families left behind. “And it’s harder on Guard families than on active-duty families. In the active Army, your husband is gone — but so is everybody else’s. In the National Guard, you don’t have the same level of understanding and empathy.” 

The University of Maryland’s Segal says: “When an active Army soldier comes home to a military post, people know what he’s been through. He has access to medics who know how to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. But a Guard soldier goes back to a community that knows very little about the armed forces and has nobody trained in handling PTSD.”

The Illinois Guard lacks numbers for PTSD cases, but a spokesman, Lt. Dusty Grove, notes that the National Guard Bureau says 18 percent of all those deployed — regular Army, National Guard and Army Reserve — “meet the criteria for PTSD.”

Enyart says Illinois was the first state to require screening of returning Guard members for traumatic brain injury. And he has precise statistics on another hot-button issue — suicide. Since 2003, the Illinois Guard has lost nine members to suicide; three of them had never gone to Iraq or Afghanistan. 

“We’re struggling to find out why people commit suicide,” he says. He has ordered sergeants to keep a close eye on their people — but because National Guard soldiers live communally only when mobilized, spotting problems can be tough.

Finally, some people fret that with so many Guard members away on federal missions, the Guard may be unable to carry out state missions such as disaster relief. If we have a Great Flood of 2011, can the Illinois Guard respond the way it did in the Great Flood of ’93?

Enyart thinks so. “We got tested with the flood of 2008 along the northern Mississippi,” he says. “We had 4,000 Guard soldiers away training to go to Afghanistan. So we relied heavily on the Air National Guard, calling up 1,600 airmen.”

One of the 170-soldier infantry companies that went to Afghanistan was commanded by Capt. Christian Pedersen, 38, of Sherman, a small downstate community near Springfield. That call-up was Pedersen’s fourth since the 1990s, when he went to Bosnia for a year.

Back then, Pedersen was a National Guard medic who dreamed of going to medical school. But deployments kept delaying that dream. He was an infantry officer by the time he went to Fort Polk, La., in 2004-05, to Iraq in 2006-07 and then to Afghanistan in 2008-09. 

“By the end of Iraq,” he says, “I knew my test scores for med school would fade.” But, he adds, “I really didn’t care about it any more.” His National Guard experience had changed him from a would-be doctor to an already-am soldier. 

In Afghanistan, roadside bombs banged up seven of his soldiers. “But we had no deaths,” he says, “and no suicides.” He calls Afghanistan “a fantastic opportunity and a great experience.”

Now, Pedersen dons a uniform daily to work full time for the Illinois Guard at Springfield’s Camp Lincoln. He got married this summer, becoming the stepfather of a 7-year-old boy. Will his new family status make him leery of deploying again?

“There’s a significant tax on our emotional bank account,” he says. But his father-in-law retired from the Illinois National Guard as a command sergeant major, meaning his wife accepts Pedersen’s military side.

“Illinois is likely to be tagged for another large-scale deployment,” Pedersen says. “I’ve told my wife and family that if the deployment is significant, and if I can have an important position, I want to go.” 

Harry Levins covered military issues for the St. Louis Post-Dispatchfrom 1990 until he retired in 2007. In 1964-65, Levins served in Germany as an Army lieutenant of infantry. 

Illinois Issues, October 2010

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