Wars Put Strain On National Guard
Idaho, a small-population state that faces a big fire threat, was kind of a poster child for officers at the meeting. Out of 3,200 people in the Idaho Army Guard, about 2,000 are members of the 116th Cavalry Brigade, which is expected to deploy to Iraq later this year. Their departure poses the question of who will be ready to deal with the state's natural disasters.
Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho Guard, said, "I think everybody in the western states is concerned that it could be a very significant fire season." But he said the Idaho Guard is confident that it will have sufficient personnel on hand, in part by tapping members of the Air National Guard if necessary.
Some commanders from the Southeast likewise worry about hurricane season. After a big storm, there is high demand for precisely the sort of troops that have been deployed most heavily -- military police to keep order and engineers to clear debris.
"It's not just how many, it's who, and what kind of skill sets they have," said Maj. Gen. David B. Poythress, Georgia's commander. "When both my MP companies are gone, I don't have any MPs to put on the street."
In Mississippi, the unit designated as "first responders" to repair hurricane damage, the 223rd Engineer Battalion, was deployed for the past year to Iraq. It has come home, said Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross. But, he added, "they left the equipment in Iraq." He has been told that by hurricane season he will be given the gear belonging to another unit being deployed. He also noted that he has sent 21 helicopters to Iraq, leaving just five for post-storm rescues and transport of cargo and troops.
The brigade the North Carolina Guard now has in Iraq came from the southeastern and southern parts of the state, the area that tends to bear the brunt of hurricanes. "We're a little short people in those areas," said Maj. Gen. William E. Ingram Jr., commander of the North Carolina Guard. In order to ensure that he can serve those areas after a disaster, he said, he will have to mobilize more-distant troops sooner, which will make it more expensive for the state.
As Ingram spoke, he almost seemed to be mentally crossing his fingers. "We're stretched, to a degree, but we're certainly not at the breaking point," he said. "If we can get through this year, we'll be in pretty good shape for next year's hurricane season."
Not all state commanders are sending up the alarm.
"We're an adaptive force," said Florida's Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett. The new demands, he said, are "just part of the leadership challenge." Even at his peak level of deployment of 5,200 troops, he said, "I could still do about a hurricane and a half" with the remaining 7,000. "You're not going to see me jump up and say, 'We can't do this.' "
Rather, Burnett's complaint is money: "We're proud to be in the fight, but we've got to be funded."
Similarly, Ohio's commander, Maj. Gen. John H. Smith, warned, "We will soon be a hollow force without replenishment dollars to replace what is being consumed or lost."
Commanders from the biggest states generally seem most optimistic. Maj. Gen. Wayne D. Marty of Texas said he expects to send 3,000 soldiers to Iraq later this year. But he has a total force of about 19,000. "We're busy, but we're not stressed," he said. Morale also appears to be high, with reenlistment rates at a 10-year high, he said.
Even so, Marty said, he could see a point when the current pace will no longer be sustainable. "There will be a time when we reach diminishing returns, if this thing keeps going with the op [operational] tempo we have now," he said.
Another big-state commander, Michigan's Maj. Gen. Thomas G. Cutler, also said he saw problems on the horizon. "We're concerned," he said. "Everybody has a certain level of concern about how long-term this will be."
The Pentagon says there are solutions to all the potential shortfalls.
Brig. Gen. Frank Grass, deputy director of the Army National Guard, said he envisions states supporting one another with troops, aircraft and other equipment. "In any state where we may be short assets to respond to a homeland mission, whether it's a tornado in a town or a fire, we can cross state lines with just a phone call or two," he said.
For example, he said, if Montana is short on helicopters this summer, it could borrow from Wyoming or other states. (A spokeswoman for the Wyoming National Guard said that state has eight Black Hawks, half of which are deployed to the Middle East.)
Overall, Grass said that he isn't aware of any state commanders who have informed his office that they cannot contribute any more troops. But he said he does know that "certain types of units have been used up -- MPs, security forces, military intelligence." The answer, he said, is to convert to those skills some less-used units, such as artillery and chemical protection forces.
Guard commanders agreed that sharing is the answer, at least in the short run. "Until the aviation picture gets fixed, that's what we're going to have to do," said Texas's Marty. "We're not going to stand there and watch another state burn."
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Spec. Henry Arnold of Houma, La., holds his 11-month-old son, Hunter, before his National Guard unit was sent on active duty last month. Some state forces are stretched thin by deployments.
(Jonathon Cohen -- Houma Courier Via AP)