by Floyd J. McKay
My mother was intensely proud of her kids, and saved clippings and other notices of notoriety as we built our careers. When she died this year, I inherited a stack of memorabilia, but nowhere among them was a flattering letter to my dad from my National Guard commander.
At its command levels, the Guard has always been a very political organization, anxious to do favors for the likes of Congressman George H.W. Bush by looking after a late-maturing son. But my dad was a farmer and millworker, not a congressman, and nothing would have been gained from the flattery.
From piles of documents (some apparently faked) and interviews, it is apparent that the future President George W. Bush did in fact get special treatment from the Texas Air National Guard. Those of us who put in our time can justly feel some resentment.
But that's not what concerns this writer. My concern is that, perhaps because of his special treatment, Bush has found it easy to abuse the ordinary National Guard soldier in what is in effect a back-door draft to fight his war in Iraq.
About 40 percent of the troops in Iraq are Guard or Reserves (primarily Guard), including 3,000 Army Guard from Washington and 1,400 from Oregon.
In January, the Pentagon summarily extended the retirement and enlistment dates of soldiers, including some 16,000 in the Guard. Soldiers who had done their time in Iraq were forced to continue beyond the end-dates for their service.
Then, in June, the Army called up 5,600 more soldiers who had fulfilled their active-duty and reserve requirements and are now on what is known as Individual Ready Reserve -- that is, they are unpaid and attend no drills, but remain on a reserve list.
Since things began to go badly for us in Iraq, the Guard has been asked to pay a heavy price, in some cases beyond the traditional "contract" Guard recruits expect.
Young men and women joining the Guard realize they are subject to call-up -- that should be made clear. In my time, pre-Vietnam, we sweated the Cuban missile crisis and other Cold War threats. Recruiters now tell prospects that in their six-year hitch, they should count on at least a year deployed.
Increasingly, the Guard's tradition of combining a career with military service is threatened, and one predictable result is a decline in recruiting. Nationwide, recruiting is about 91 percent of normal. In Oregon, recruiting is down 15 to 20 percent, lower in some units that have been deployed.
Unfortunately, the quality of its recruits has also declined. Army National Guard recruiters report only 58 percent of those signing up are "quality recruits," well below that of the Air Guard and Army Reserve.
Aversion to getting killed is only one factor. Friends in the Guard cite jobs and family as the most important deterrents to recruiting and retention. Typical Guard deployments today include five months' training and a full year in Iraq, enough to devastate a professional career or small business. Federal law supposedly protects jobs, but is often circumvented.
The profile of the National Guard is quite different from that of the volunteer Army. Guard soldiers are older -- only 39 percent are under age 30, compared with 68 percent in the regular Army -- and more likely to be married and closely linked to hometowns.
Middle-aged men (the Guard is more male than the regular Army) who in many cases have already done regular Army duty, find themselves in harm's way again, when they thought they had signed on for traditional "citizen-soldier" duty to wind up their military career.
In small towns that lose Guard units to active duty, the stress on community life is considerable. Guard members often come from other uniformed services -- police and fire -- and small communities have found themselves undermanned in those areas. At the state level, availability of Guard units to fight forest fires and deal with floods and other natural disasters is curtailed.
The Guard has always had a dual role, local and federal. As the Pentagon takes more control, state functions are sure to suffer. Some Guard officers worry the Pentagon wants a weaker Guard and larger Reserve, which would be a shift of power from state to federal control.
There is a limit on how long this government can wage hot wars by increasing reliance on the National Guard. We've not had a military draft for 30 years, but don't try to tell that to the Guard.
This article first appeared in The Seattle Times
Reprinted by special permission
September 29, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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