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Two Years Later, Iraq War Drains Military

"The real stress on the system was the fact that no one envisioned that we would have this level of commitment for the National Guard," which shipped seven combat brigades to Iraq and Afghanistan for the most recent rotation, Cody said.

Because the Army traditionally undersupplies Guard and reserve units, few had the troops or gear needed when mobilized. As a result, large numbers of soldiers and equipment were shifted from one unit to another, or "cross-leveled," to cobble together a force to deploy.

Marine Sgt. Andrew Mrozik, left, and Staff Sgt. Jody Van Doorenmaalen talk with a potential recruit at a high school in Algonquin, Ill. Military recruiters say they find it increasingly difficult to meet goals for new service members. (Jeff Roberson -- AP)

"We were woefully underequipped before the war started. That situation hasn't gotten any better. As a matter of fact, it gets a little bit worse every day, because we continue to cross-level," Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Congress this month.

The widespread fracturing of units is making it increasingly difficult for the Army to assemble viable forces from the remaining hodgepodge -- most of which have low readiness ratings, Army figures show. "It's a little bit like Swiss cheese. We've taken out holes in the units," Lovelace said. "Those holes are a lot of times leaders, and they are hard to grow."

Already, the Guard and Reserve have deployed the vast majority of their forces most needed for fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan -- such as military intelligence, civil affairs, infantry and military police -- bringing into question whether the Pentagon's two-year limit on reserve mobilizations is sustainable.

"Can we do this forever? No. We can't do this forever at current levels," the Army National Guard's Schultz said in an interview.

In a sign of deeper problems, career citizen-soldiers frustrated by broken units and long, grueling war-zone duties are increasingly leaving the Guard. Attrition among career guardsmen is running at nearly 20 percent, said Schultz, who expects that as many as a third of the members of some units rotating back from Iraq will quit.

Recruitment is sluggish, reaching just 75 percent of the target for the first quarter of fiscal 2005 -- meaning that the Guard is unlikely to reach its desired strength of 350,000 soldiers this year.

The viability of the Army Guard and Reserve will prove decisive, senior Army leaders say, as they consider in 2006 whether to permanently increase the size of the active-duty Army, and if so by how much. It also marks a critical test of the military's ability to appeal to the civilian population, not only with bonuses and education benefits, but also with an ethos of self-sacrifice that it considers the bedrock of the all-volunteer force.

"For the all-volunteer force to work, it has to work all the time, not just in peacetime," Schultz said. "It's now time to answer the call to serve, to assemble on the village green."

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