Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2003

Plight of reserve troops demands attention

March 27, 2003


— Rep. Mark Kirk, a second-term Illinois Republican, is also a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, one of the handful of legislators who served on active duty during the first Gulf War. Even in elective office, Kirk continues to pull 12-hour shifts one weekend a month at the Alert Center in the Pentagon, monitoring intelligence reports from the Middle East and parts of Asia.

At breakfast on the day the new Iraqi campaign began, Kirk told me about the change that has taken place in the life of his fellow reservists. As a congressional staffer in the 1990s, serving in a unit that flew reconnaissance missions that identified enemy radar and anti-aircraft sites for targeting, "I got called up for all of President Clinton's wars," Kirk said, "and none of them lasted for more than 90 days. Post-Sept. 11, life is very different for reservists."

"Everyone feels very lucky to be in uniform after 9/11 and after the big victory in Afghanistan, everybody felt very proud to be part of that. But there are financial pressures. ... A 90-day deployment under Clinton was no sweat. A one-year or two-year deployment, which you have now, is a big sweat."

Kirk put his finger on a challenge that is recognized by Pentagon officials and many others in Congress. While much has been said -- and rightly so -- about the needs of the "first responders" in homeland defense, the police, firefighters and emergency medical crews, the nation also is lagging in its obligations to the reservists who increasingly are the "first responders" in any military mission.

When retired Rear Admiral Thomas Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, testified before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee last week, he noted that the 1,190,000 Reserve and National Guard forces "now comprise almost 50 percent" of the total U.S. military. Pentagon figures show that 212,617 National Guard and Reserve members had been placed on active duty as of last week. As Hall said, Reserve personnel "provide the majority of force protection to military installations worldwide. ... It is now routine for the Army Guard to plan and execute Bosnia missions. They are scheduled to relieve the active Army in Kosovo," where they already provide most of the logistics support.

Official policy limits call-ups to 12 months, but the demands of the war on terrorism have forced the Pentagon to extend many tours to a second year.

"When you're talking about one- and two-year orders," Kirk said, "you're basically 100 percent back in the military, and that produces unique stresses and strains."

Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons, who flew risky reconnaissance missions over Kuwaiti oil fields with the Nevada Air National Guard during the first Gulf War, stressed in a separate interview that all of his squadron-mates -- and their counterparts -- were volunteers "proud to serve." That same point was made by the spokesmen for the Reserve Officers Assn. and four other groups who make up the Military Coalition, in recent congressional testimony. But their statement also said that because "the hard fact is that we don't have a large enough force -- in any component -- to adequately carry out all current missions and still be prepared for new contingencies ... National Guard and Reserve members and units shoulder ever-greater day-to-day operational workloads."

The strain is felt in many ways. The Pentagon says one-third of those called up for active duty suffer a loss in income; informal estimates put the percentage higher. Often they face added costs for living arrangements, moving and meeting the health care needs of their families. Their civilian jobs are supposedly protected, but there have been publicized instances of companies laying them off while they are on active duty. Small firms often struggle to fill in for an employee whose return date they do not know.

Officials say they have made progress on addressing all these needs, but the number of bills introduced in the current Congress to help reservists suggests that many lawmakers recognize that more must be done. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was activated to do legal work for the Air Force in the first Gulf War, told me that the most urgent need is "to provide support services for the families of the men and women who are mobilized. They need counseling on finances and personal issues, they need child care. If we don't address these needs, we will lose our ability to recruit for the Reserves."

In a time when few American civilians are being asked for any sacrifice, the burdens of these reservists and their families call upon the conscience of the country.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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