The dangers faced by American troops in Iraq have been exaggerated, adding to the difficulty of recruiting soldiers at home, the Army general in charge of National Guard forces said yesterday.
The casualty rate for guardsmen is low compared with any previous armed conflict, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum said.
He said he recognizes that every death is a tragedy for that person's family. "But I lose, unfortunately, more people through private automobile accidents and motorcycle accidents over the same period of time," he added.
"It is dangerous, but it is -- I shouldn't say it to this group, but I'm going to -- it is misrepresented, how dangerous it really is," Gen. Blum said during a breakfast with defense reporters.
Surveys of recruit-age Americans and their parents have shown that fear of being killed or wounded in Iraq is one of the major reasons that young people are choosing other careers after high school. The National Guard also has been squeezed by a slowdown in the number of active-duty soldiers switching to the Guard.
Gen. Blum said more than 250,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen have been mobilized for active duty since the September 11 attacks and that 262 of them have been killed in the global war on terrorism. Pentagon casualty statistics show that more than 90 percent of those deaths were in Iraq.
More than 1,750 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
National Guard soldiers make up about 40 percent of the U.S. ground force in Iraq, although that is scheduled to decline substantially next year, when the Army deploys two newly expanded active-duty divisions -- the 101st Airborne and the 4th Infantry.
The National Guard's presence in Iraq is approaching its peak this month with the scheduled arrival of about 4,000 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. That will be the single largest combat deployment for the Pennsylvania Army Guard since World War II.
By next year, however, the level of National Guard commitment in Iraq will decline, Gen. Blum said, and that bodes well for a reversal of the decline in recruiting. He hopes to go from a total of eight Guard combat brigades and one Guard division headquarters in Iraq, totaling about 35,000 troops, to two or three brigades.
Gen. Blum said he does not expect the National Guard to achieve its recruiting goal for the budget year ending Sept. 30. Through June 30, it was running almost 25 percent behind. Gen. Blum said he doubts he can close the gap.
"Is it likely? No," he said, adding that he hopes to make up the difference in the next 18 months.
Gen. Blum insisted that although the National Guard has fallen short of its recruiting goals every month of the current budget year, "It's not a case where we're in serious crisis mode."