January 29, 2007
Hundreds of thou sands of National Guard and Reserve members previously mobilized for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are exposed anew to involuntary call-up under a policy change unveiled with President Bush's plan to "surge" forces into Baghdad.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he has rescinded a rule, set in 2002, that barred involuntary mobilization of reserve personnel beyond a "cumulative" 24-month ceiling for a wartime emergency.
But Gates also softened the effect of that decision by capping future involuntary mobilizations at 12 months apiece, including training time. This replaces what has been routine 16-to-24-month mobilizations for most Guard or Reserve members including a year "boots on the ground" in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The now shelved 24-month "cumulative" rule had been in effect five years, long enough that some Guard and Reserve members, and their families, might have believed it protected against a second call-up.
But Brig. Gen. James W. Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard, said a majority of Guard soldiers will not be surprised by the policy change, given the nature of the wars they've experienced firsthand.
"The reality is that most soldiers, having served once in theater, knew that this was going to be a long war and that at some point we were going to have to come back to them," Nuttall told Military Update.
David Stein of Hesperia, Calif., agreed. The former sergeant first class with the California National Guard returned from a year in Iraq in May 2004. He said the impression left with his unit, based in Riverside, Calif., was that they wouldn't deploy again for at least two years. That 24-month cumulative rule, if known, wasn't a policy these soldiers had planned their futures by.
Nuttall said "selling" a second round of mobilization to Guard soldiers "is not difficult" thanks to the other policy changes Gates made, particularly his decision to cap mobilizations at 12 months. The idea is to have units conduct as much readiness training as possible before mobilization.
Some training while mobilized, before deploying, still will be needed so time in theater likely will be only 10 months, on average, Nuttall said.
"We would not be able to do this, quite honestly, if it were another 24 months," Nuttall said, referring to the effect on families and civilian careers. "Sacrifices have to be made by these soldiers but the fact that we shortened the mobilization for them is a huge benefit."
Defense officials, Nuttall said, are weighing a proposal to allow commands to apply stop-loss for up to a year before units deploy. Commands now can block personnel from retiring or separating from service within 90 days before mobilization. Once stop-loss is imposed, soldiers must remain in their units through deployment plus 60 days to out process.
Longer stop-loss authority would make more benefits available to affected soldiers and families, he said. It also would be "setting the unit up for success by locking down the formation" so commanders know earlier "these are the people I have trust and confidence in and I'm going to go to war with."
The Army now keeps about 10,000 soldiers in service using stop-loss, said a personnel official.
Nuttall said that out of 350,000 Army National Guard members, roughly 270,000 have deployed since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. The Guard couldn't continue to contribute as effectively to the war effort if the 24-month ceiling on total time mobilized were not removed.
David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the cap was imposed in 2002 "to ensure we did not overuse our people." But the actual law governing mobilizations says only that reservists cannot be mobilized involuntarily for more than 24 "consecutive" months.
Chu said Defense officials have been making the point that reservists likely would be mobilized more than once since July 2003 when then-defense chief Donald Rumsfeld signed a memo setting rotations goal for reservists of five years' separation between mobilizations. Ironically, U.S. ground forces haven't been large enough to accommodate that goal. When the next Guard units deploy, Nuttall said, an average of only three years will have passed since their last mobilizations.
In unveiling the surge plan of 17,500 more soldiers into Baghdad and 4,000 more Marines into Anbar Province, Gates also announced strength increases. The active Army is to grow by 65,000. That's 35,000 soldiers atop a 30,000 temporary increase phased in since 2004. The Marine Corps is to grow by 27,000; the Army National Guard by 8,000; the Army Reserve by 1,000.
Gates also wants members who are forced to deploy early or to extend their deployments beyond rotation standards to receive an extra $1,000 a month. Details on eligibility are still being worked. Chu said the payments should go to "those whose expectations we seriously violate" rather than to members who depart a day early or are delayed a day returning home.
"I don't think any of our people believes, nor do I think the American taxpayers believe, we should suddenly give you some big compensation for that," Chu said.
Finally, most future deployments of reservists will involve whole units rather than individual volunteers to improve unit cohesion. Fewer soldiers, Nuttall said, will have to tell spouses or employers that they're volunteering for another tour, and so face the prospect, he quipped, that "one will be handing them divorce papers, the other will hand them a pink slip."