About Money, Camaraderie Draw Some Part-Time Soldiers Back To Iraq
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Money, Camaraderie Draw Some Part-Time Soldiers Back To Iraq info
December 5, 2006
By Sig Christenson, Express-News Military Writer
He logged 500 convoys in northern and southern Iraq last year, as well as one of the country's most violent regions, Anbar province all too often coming under attack by insurgents.
Since returning home it's been a little boring for platoon leader 1st Lt. James Campbell, a young Texas Army National Guard officer from Austin who's thinking seriously about going back.
"It's just amazing and that's one of the things I miss the most, the camaraderie and the bonds that you establish with your men when you go through those harrowing circumstances together," he said. "You don't really get that on the outside world, on the outside of the Army. Or at least for me, it hasn't been the same."
As the Army struggles to put enough boots on the ground in Iraq at one of the most crucial moments of the occupation, it has an ace in the hole volunteers, part-time troops like Campbell who might return once more to the desert.
They miss the risk. They miss the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. And sometimes the reason is more personal.
National Guard troops who already have spent a year in Iraq are unlikely to be ordered back to the war zone. A typical Iraq vet has served 18 months, six of them training for the yearlong duty tour. Federal law allows them to serve no more than 24 consecutive months on active duty. The Pentagon precludes involuntary deployments of part-time troops with previous combat tours.
But the law and policy welcome volunteers.
At least 14,000 Army National Guard soldiers close to half of them volunteers have served more than one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan out of 170,000 who have gone to both countries since 9-11.
In Texas, all 1,800 soldiers who have deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo in recent years volunteered. So, too, did 1,500 Texans now on the border.
Into harm's way
Family and friends of these soldiers and airmen wouldn't expect them to willingly go back into harm's way and some won't. They may not have to anyway, because more than 12,000 Guard troops in the Lone Star State have never deployed.
But around half of the Texas Guard's 18,267 Army and Air National Guard troops have served in a variety of missions since Bosnia, among them hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and commanders are counting on some of them to jump at the chance to stay in uniform.
Even now, leaders at the Guard's Camp Mabry headquarters in Austin are processing paperwork to shift troops from a yearlong Kosovo peacekeeping tour to the Texas border.
The National Guard Bureau is expected to approve the additional border troops. Once that and the personnel packets are readied, the Kosovo vets volunteering for the border mission will get time off and then head south sometime next year. At least 300 will sign up but will work under a section of federal law that doesn't restrict the time they can spend on active duty.
The volunteers are needed. The National Guard has had as many as 75,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at one time to augment the active-duty Army. The Guard has regenerated close to two-thirds of its force since the Iraq war, bringing in thousands of soldiers and airmen who have never been overseas.
It can support the Army's missions at current force levels, 30,000 part-time troops a year, said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman.
The Guard's operations chief, Army Col. Tim Kadavy, said it is planning to send 30,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Future deployments call for the Guard to contribute about the same number of troops overseas.
The Guard tries to send units to the war zone that have not previously deployed, but he said it also scours the ranks for those closest to being ready for combat.
Each state contributes troops for deployments, but Texas will field more soldiers and airmen because it's the Guard's second-largest outfit, behind only California's 19,597 troops.
The need is especially critical in the Army's most stressed fields military police, engineering and aviation. Texas, which has sent 8,000 troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo over the past seven years, just deployed the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade to Camp Anaconda north of Baghdad. About 1,200 Texans are in the brigade, a helicopter unit.
The Texas Guard has no firm plans yet to deploy units to the war zone. Neither the National Guard Bureau's Milord nor Texas Guard spokesman Col. Bill Meehan knows if the state will get a new mobilization order next year. But, Meehan added, the Guard has received mobilization orders each year this decade.
Volunteers' key role
Volunteers likely will be a key part of any future deployment because they fill gaps in career fields like military police, which serves myriad needs in Iraq.
"People who do volunteer, especially with critical skills, have always been important," Meehan said. "And those critical skills can be anywhere from medical to refuelers."
Those doing second tours are certain to answer the call for a variety of reasons money and benefits chief among them. A Texas Guard sergeant with six-plus years earns $2,124.60 a month on active duty, as well as health, dental and education benefits. That money isn't taxed if troops are in a war zone.
But there are other pluses. Soldiers in Iraq get $400 a month in hazardous duty pay and family separation benefits. They qualify for housing allowances that defray the cost of mortgages or rent, as well as money for clothes and groceries.
A five-year Texas Guard veteran and single parent, Sgt. Abraham Monreal would go back to Iraq if not for his 8-year-old daughter, Victoria. She lived with his parents while he was on active duty for 17 months.
Strain on family life is a consistent theme among those he knows. Only a couple of Iraq veterans he knows would go back to the war zone; some doubt the wisdom of the occupation or are struggling to save their marriages.
His desire to return to war has nothing to do with money Monreal, 27, of Amarillo earns more as a juvenile detention staffer than he did as a full-time sergeant.
For him, it's personal.
"I lost a squad leader, and that part of me is like well, I lost a good buddy," he said. "I know things are not looking good over there, but I would like to go back to make the whole thing worth it, to go over there and finish the job, that everything we did was worth it."
Maj. Gen. John Furlow, commander of the 36th Infantry Division, said a third of the Texas Guard's volunteers remain on duty because of better pay and benefits. In other cases there isn't much difference between active-duty and civilian pay, he said, adding that troops would return out of a sense of duty.
Neither money nor duty is the issue confronting 1st Lt. Edward Abel "Abe" Maskill, 29, of San Angelo. He earned $3,774.30 a month in untaxed base pay in Iraq, more than he does as a Verizon customer service agent.
"I signed up for infantry and I didn't feel like I got to do my job," Maskill explained. "There's this one bit of not proving myself in combat."
Platoon leader Campbell, 39, single and formerly of Midland, can't say if the troops he served with last year would return to Iraq with their buddies against their families' wishes.
But his memories of the high-risk life on Iraq's dusty roads and the brotherhood of soldiers help him understand why they'd go back, this time as volunteers.
"You take a guy and you put him behind (a machine gun), and he has the high operational tempo and stress," Campbell said. "You put him behind a desk, behind a computer doing office work, and it just doesn't measure up."
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