Los Angeles Times
March 2, 2007
By Rone Tempest and Peter Spiegel, Times Staff Writers
SACRAMENTO — The Pentagon has ordered the mobilization of 800 California National Guard soldiers to support President Bush's surge of 20,000 additional troops in Iraq, California Guard officials said Thursday.
The announcement came on the same day as a congressionally created panel issued a report concluding that repeated National Guard deployments to Iraq and domestic emergencies are wearing down units to such an extent that they may no longer be able to meet current demands.
The 13-member Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which was created a year ago to recommend legislative changes to laws governing the Guard, said the current tempo of deployments "is not sustainable" and is likely to hurt recruitment.
"The equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable and has reduced the capability of the United States to respond to current and additional major contingencies, foreign and domestic," the report found.
State Guard officials said they hoped to find enough soldiers to fulfill the Pentagon request without requiring the use of troops who have served previous tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We are trying to avoid involuntary mobilization of any of our soldiers," said California National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann.
But under a recent Department of Defense policy shift, most of California's 20,000 Army and Air National Guard are subject to be called if needed, Siepmann said.
"Virtually everyone in the National Guard is eligible," he said, and Guard commanders cannot rule out the possibility that some of the state's "citizen soldiers" might be called up for a second or even a third tour.
Guard officials did not specify the eventual destination of the battalion-size California force except to say that it would be somewhere in the Iraq theater.
So far, more than 6,000 California National Guard troops have served in Iraq in the first major combat deployment of state militia since the Korean War.
Across the country, the Iraq war has changed the nature of the state National Guards who for the previous 50 years had been used primarily to respond to domestic emergencies such as floods or urban riots.
The Pentagon's move to call up units of the California National Guard is part of a new policy, announced in January, that allows the department to send any Guard unit back to Iraq for a second tour as early as two years before troops originally were eligible for redeployment.
Although the complete list of units going to Iraq this year has not been decided yet, senior Pentagon officials said that under the new policy, military planners could call up as many as 20,000 soldiers from the Guard by this time next year.
The Guard troops would take the place of the five Army combat brigades now headed to Iraq as part of the Bush administration's "surge" in Baghdad, officials said.
The Pentagon has attempted to soften the blow of the second Iraq tours by awarding bonus pay to Guard soldiers redeployed earlier than expected and shortening the amount of time units can be sent overseas on each deployment.
During a meeting of the National Governors Assn. in Washington, D.C. last week, governors warned that they do not have the resources to have Guard units performing overseas missions for the federal government and to keep them at the readiness necessary to deal with domestic natural disasters.
The head of the National Guard, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, recently testified before the congressional commission that 88% of Guard units that are back at their home bases are "very poorly equipped."
In its report Thursday, the commission echoed this assessment, saying, "The equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable and has reduced the capability of the United States to respond to current and additional major contingencies, foreign and domestic."
The report found that the cumulative number of days Guard soldiers have been called to duty had risen from 12.7 million in 2001 to 68.3 million in 2005; it estimated that total would drop slightly, to 63 million, for 2006.
The heavy workload is already hurting the quality of Guard units, the report said. The percentage of Army National Guard recruits who are former active Army soldiers — a key source of new personnel — has dropped from 61.1% in 1997 to just 38.5% last year.
In addition, the share of recruits who were in the top half of military aptitude tests dropped from 70% in 2004 to 59% last year.
The new troops requested by the Pentagon are in addition to the continuing deployment of National Guard soldiers who received orders before the surge was announced.
In fact, the largest California National Guard unit sent to Iraq in more than two years will hold its farewell ceremony beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.
More than 600 soldiers assigned to the Los Angeles-based 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry are scheduled to begin a one-year tour in southern Iraq after completing training at Camp Shelby, Miss.
According to spokesman Lt. Col. Chester Lebeau, the soldiers, drawn from all over California, include more than 100 who volunteered after serving a previous tour. Tempest reported from Sacramento. Spiegel reported from Washington. Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes also contributed to this report.