The head of the Army Reserve has sent a sharply worded memo to other military leaders expressing "deepening concern" about the continued readiness of his troops, who have been used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and warning that his branch of 200,000 soldiers "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."
In the memo, dated Dec. 20, Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly lashed out at what he said were outdated and "dysfunctional" policies on mobilizing and managing the force. He complained that his repeated requests to adjust the policies to current realities have been rebuffed by Pentagon authorities.
Department of the Army Memorandum regarding the readiness of the United States Army Reserve. (pdf) (www.baltimoresun.com)
The three-star general, who has a reputation for speaking bluntly, said the situation has reached a point at which the Army Reserve is "in grave danger of being unable to meet" its operational requirements if other national emergencies arise. Insistence on restrictive policies, he continued, "threatens to unhinge an already precariously balanced situation in which we are losing as many soldiers through no use as we are through the fear of overuse."
His pointed remarks represent the latest in a chorus of warnings from military officers and civilian defense specialists that the strains of overseas missions are badly fraying the U.S. Army. The distress has appeared most evident in reservist ranks. Both the Army Reserve and the National Guard last month disclosed significant recruiting slumps.
Helmly's memo was addressed to Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, and was sent up the command chain through the office of Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who oversees the Army Forces Command. It surfaced yesterday in the Baltimore Sun.
A senior Army spokesman, Col. Joseph Curtin, said Helmly's concerns are "not new" and are being taken seriously. "The Army is moving to resolve them," he said, citing a task force that is looking at ways to improve benefits for reservists and streamline procedures for activating them.
On Capitol Hill, Helmly's memo drew expressions of surprise and alarm. Several lawmakers predicted that the general's blunt comments would fuel an already charged debate over whether the United States has enough forces in Iraq and enough in the Army generally.
"By consistently underestimating the number of troops necessary for the successful occupation of Iraq, the administration has placed a tremendous burden on the Army Reserve and created this crisis," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
"The memo presents more questions than answers," said Rep. Victor F. Snyder (D-Ark.), who deals with reservist issues in the House. "I think he's really making a plea to the Pentagon to change some of their practices or let him do some things he wants to do."
Helmly declined through a spokesman yesterday to discuss his memo, but he told the Sun on Tuesday that he had intended it to promote a frank exchange among Army leaders in advance of congressional hearings.
"The purpose of this memorandum is to inform you of the Army Reserve's inability . . . to meet mission requirements" associated with Iraq and Afghanistan "and to reset and regenerate its forces for follow-on and future missions," he wrote.
"I do not wish to sound alarmist," he added. "I do wish to send a clear, distinctive signal of deepening concern."
Designed to fill key support roles during wartime, the Army Reserve has been heavily taxed by the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. About 50,000 Reserve members are now on active duty, the majority of them in the United States freeing up other forces for overseas assignments. But many Reserve troops are abroad -- 17,000 total in Iraq and Kuwait, 2,000 in Afghanistan -- serving as military police, truck drivers, engineers, medics and civil affairs specialists.
In many instances, the Reserve soldiers were plucked individually from their normal units and sent to round out active-duty ones. This practice, Helmly said, has "broken" some Army Reserve units.
He also faulted a number of "peacetime" personnel policies that he said needed to change -- among them, one that delays training of Reserve members who have returned from overseas duty, and another that sets mandatory retirement dates for Reserve officers.
He complained as well that the Army has refused to exercise all its authority to compel certain Reserve soldiers to go on active duty.
For instance, in the Army Reserve, members can choose between the Selected Reserve, which has specific units and requires at least one weekend a month of training, and the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), which has no training obligation and a reduced chance of being called to duty. Although the Pentagon started dipping into the IRR last summer, calling about 4,600 soldiers for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, Helmly said regulations that allow the shifting of soldiers from the IRR to Reserve units are not being used as much as they could be.
He also said the Army is relying too much on "volunteers" from the Reserve force rather than requiring individuals or units to serve. This threatens "to distort the very nature of service" and tends to draw those who "enjoy lesser responsible positions in civilian life," he wrote. He sounded especially incensed about the current practice of paying volunteers an extra $1,000 a month, saying this sets a precedent and risks blurring the line between "volunteer" and "mercenary."
Highlighting the dwindling number of Reserve troops available for future deployments, Helmly included computations showing that only 37,515 remain out of 200,366 soldiers in the Army Reserve.