- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003


The war on terrorism is setting historic — but not always welcome — benchmarks for America’s weekend warriors, especially the men and women of the Army’s National Guard and Reserve.

As of Friday, 52 National Guard and Reserve troops had died in the Iraq war. Although the Pentagon says it has no comparative statistics readily available, that total apparently is the highest death toll since the Vietnam War, a much longer conflict in which far fewer reservists served.

Reservists have been called upon in virtually every U.S. war over the past 15 years, but they play a vastly greater role in today’s military — partly because the active-duty force is stretched so thin around the globe, partly because of the uncertain length of the war on terrorism, and partly because the attacks of September 11 opened a new era in homeland defense.

Citizen soldiers can no longer expect to do only the minimum training — one weekend a month and a two-week session each summer — nor expect to rarely, if ever, get called to active duty.

“Weekend warrior is dead,” said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, which oversees all reserve forces. “The National Guard is and will continue to be used at a rate that is unprecedented” in the 30-year history of the all-volunteer military.

Soldiers with the Army Reserve’s 310th Chemical Co., from Fort Polk, La., for example, which operates biological-detection equipment, were mobilized in October 2001 and remained on active duty in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and elsewhere until August 2003.

“This is a new phenomenon,” said Dan Goure, a defense analyst at the private Lexington Institute.

The question is how long it will last. If the demands on the Guard and Reserve ease in coming months, there may be no pronounced effect on the military’s ability to attract new people into the reserves and to prevent an exodus among those citizen soldiers already on the rolls.

Gen. Blum said in a recent interview that he foresees a gradual but steady decline in the number of reservists on active duty for the war on terrorism, although he expects the total to remain above 100,000 for the next two years. Today it stands at 169,279 — three-quarters of which are Army.

But under a different scenario, such as a protracted military commitment in Iraq or in Afghanistan, or the opening of a new front in the war on terrorism, the Pentagon may have to use the Guard and Reserve so frequently and for such long periods that it could break the force.

“If I’m just brutish with regard to the treatment of our people, then we won’t have any people,” Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, said in an interview. “They’ll tell us … ‘I’m out of here.’”

So far, according to Gens. Blum and Helmly, there is no statistical evidence of a drop-off in recruiting of reservists, although Gen. Helmly said intuition would suggest that recruiting would be harder now.

“Do I worry about it?” asks Gen. Helmly. “I will tell you it’s the No. 1 thing in my worry book.”

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