Army Struggles to Shorten Guard Tours

By LOLITA C. BALDOR
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 22, 2007; 8:16 PM

WASHINGTON -- Army National Guard combat units that go to Iraq or Afghanistan through much of the next two years will be on active duty for longer than 12 months despite the Pentagon's pledge to try limiting deployments to a year, Army and Guard officials say.

The effort to shorten tours of duty to a year _ they're now roughly 18 months _ was designed to ease the strain on troops and their families, in part by jamming more war preparation into the soldiers' routine monthly training exercises at home.

However, Army and National Guard leaders told The Associated Press that efforts to transfer more training to the states so soldiers can train at home won't be done in time to benefit the thousands of troops going to war this year and in 2008. That is because states don't have the equipment, soldiers or plans they need to do the extra training, officials said.

"It's going to be hard to shorten it at all because so much has to happen," Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, said in an interview. Adjutants general command the guard in each state.

"If they're going in early 2008, they would almost need to start preparing this minute," he said.

Guard soldiers typically travel to military centers around the country for up to six months of training before heading to the battlefront for a year, a total of 18 months on active duty.

No final decisions have been made, but Guard officials say they have contingency plans to send two or more Guard combat brigades back to Iraq in 2008 for their second yearlong tour of duty. Brigades usually have about 3,500 troops.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that no such deployments have been proposed to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but other officials have said the planning includes the possibility of tapping Guard units from Arkansas, Indiana and other states.

Stretched by the demands of nearly five years at war and facing growing public discontent, the Pentagon last month decided to limit Guard deployments to one year at a time. Guard units would train for about two months away from home just before deploying, then spend 10 months on the battlefront under the plan.

"We shopped it around, and everyone said if we put them on a predictable deployment schedule like that _ a year or less _ we can buy into it. But 18 months is killing us," Brig. Gen. James Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard, said in a recent interview.

The Pentagon also has abandoned its cumulative 24-month limit on the time a citizen-soldier could serve on active duty in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

About 270,000 of the more than 347,000 Army Guard soldiers have served in the wars. Under current plans, two Guard combat brigades would deploy to the battlefront each year, besides at least 10,000 more Guard soldiers in smaller, specialized units.

The goal is to deploy Guard units for one year, then give them five years at home. But military officials said war demands would likely give soldiers just three or four years at home.

Lempke, adjutant general in Nebraska, said the new training requirements could force Guard members to do up to two more weeks of regular training each year, in addition to their one weekend a month and one two-week stint.

The Army National Guard's Nuttall said much of the pre-deployment training can shift to the states _ from weapons certification and roadside bomb training to dental work, x-rays and paperwork like finalizing wills.

The moves could save days or even weeks of time on active duty.

Military observers, however, say letting Guard soldiers be tapped more frequently could strain families and hurt recruitment.

"It will be tough on the individual, tough on their families and tough on their employers," said Christine Wormuth, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. She said the Pentagon "will have to watch very carefully to see how this affects retention decisions and recruiting. I think this is a calculated risk."

Making the new Guard program work will require time, money and more coordination among beleaguered states already desperately swapping equipment to handle hurricanes and other emergencies. Military officials said they don't know how much the added training will cost.

"The Army has got to make some decisions," said Army Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, in charge of training Guard and Reserve units going to war. He said if they want to reduce this training to one year, the Army will have to provide the resources needed to get it done.

The biggest challenge will be finding enough Humvees, weapons and other warfighting equipment to use for training. Lempke said vehicles are already in short supply.

Rodeheaver said Army officials are asking the states to come up with equipment.

The Army, meanwhile, will have to pay to hire more trainers who help with the instruction in the states. The Pentagon will have to provide Guard members with medical benefits before they mobilize, so they can get dental work and other health care done before starting active duty.

"This is not something we can kick down the road a year or so," said Nuttall. He said hiring more trainers and making other preparations "is something we have to do right now."

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On the Net:

Defense Department: http: http://www.defenselink.mil

National Guard Bureau: http://www.ngb.army.mil/default.aspx

Adjutants General Association: http://www.agaus.org/

© 2007 The Associated Press