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September 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

When Are We Coming Home?

When it was late at night in Washington on Friday, September 5th, it was early morning of September 6th in Baghdad.

On the banks of the Potomac River, at the Pentagon, lights still flickered in the offices of military leaders, as the sun rose in the troubled valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq.

There, with the "coalition" forces moving out on patrol throughout that country, the teams searching for remnants of the Baath Party leadership, the squads assigned to guard hospitals, schools and offices, as always, there was caution. They knew that hidden land mines lay before their vehicles, booby traps were set to snare them and snipers were poised to kill or wound them one-by-one. To the south, in Kuwait, logistical support units and combat reserves began the day’s work with requisite wariness. Each and every person in uniform knew of the risks and took precautions for their individual and group survival.

Morale among the 122,000 U.S. troops in and over Iraq, we are told, was high on that morning. Backstopping the danger that each soldier marine and airman faced was the moral support derived from excellent training, military discipline, unit pride and a sense of purpose in the mission to be accomplished. This was as true for the some 20,000 National Guard and Reserve personnel deployed to both theaters, roughly 1300 of them from Puerto Rican units, as it was for the men and women of the regular volunteer uniformed forces on duty in the two countries.

For those in the National Guard and Reserve units, an essential element of their positive attitude was the knowledge that on a date certain, they would be going home, there to resume their civilian employment and family lives. In most cases, their deployment to active duty was to have been for a total of 12 months, including organizational and training time spent before arriving in the combat zone and demobilization procedures back in the United States.

The blinking lights at the Pentagon presaged a different scenario, although the "boots on the ground" would not learn of it for another four days.

In an article published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, September 9th, the nation learned that, under those Pentagon lights the previous week, defense officials had decided that National Guard and Reserve personnel already deployed to Iraq and Kuwait would spend no less then one year in their assignments, in some cases adding up to six months of additional duty to their dangerous tours.

The Air Force instituted a similar policy for reservists last year, extending tours of duty to two years, regardless of the individual’s duty station. This policy affected members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard who were involuntarily extended for over one year and are now in their second rotation.

The Pentagon justified the action by pointing out that many of the military occupational specialties needed in Iraq were exclusively provided by Guard and Reserve units and that these skills were sorely needed in the pacification and stabilization of Iraq. Military spokesmen, in response to the article, pointed out that since 9/11 the Department of Defense is authorized to deploy Guard and Reserve personnel for as many as two years, although there has not yet been any deployment for more than a total of 12 months, with many for a lesser time.

The shock that this news brought to the families of deployed personnel was exacerbated by the apparent secrecy with which it was made. Although President George W. Bush made a major address on the Iraqi occupation last Sunday evening, in it requesting an additional 87 billion dollars from Congress for on-going operations, he made no mention of the mobilization extension. Many affected guardsmen and reservists in Iraq and Kuwait were informed of the decision by spouses and friends calling or emailing from the United States. Guard officials in some states reported that they had not been notified of the decision before the news became public.

Critics of the Administration’s Iraq policy said the extension illustrated a lack of effective planning by civilian officials at the Pentagon. The same officials testified to Congressional committees this week that the plan would bring "predictability" to those mobilized individuals and units assigned to the war zone. Although specific details of the new policy have not been defined, it is presently understood that it applies only to reservists and guardsmen currently in place in Iraq and Kuwait and not to those in the pipeline.

Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) spokesperson, Major Millie Rosa, told the Herald that very few island Guard personnel would be affected by the extension, since only about 450 of the roughly 2,700 men and women presently deployed are in the Central Command (CENTCOM) zone affected by the policy. "Anyway," she said, "all were informed before their departure in January that their tours in theater could run up to a year." The Puerto Ricans in Iraq and Kuwait are involved primarily in logistical support, force protection and military police activities.

At its peak after 9/11, the Puerto Rico National Guard had 4,700 of its members deployed, constituting more than half its total strength. Such numbers made it sixth in the nation in numbers of National Guard personnel on active duty in the war against terrorism. Before that, Puerto Rican Guard units were deployed in Desert Storm, Kosovo and Bosnia.

So far, nine Puerto Ricans have been killed in response to the war on terrorism, two from Army Reserves and the remainder soldiers of the regular volunteer force. The last Puerto Rican to die in Iraq was Sgt. Juan M. Serrano, assigned to the First Armored Division deployed from Germany. He was killed in July while changing a tire on his vehicle on a Baghdad highway.

Puerto Rico’s first Army Reserve unit was deployed within hours after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The 311 Quartermaster Unit packed up and shipped out to Ft. Lee, Virginia, there to take part in the horrendous aftermath of the damage and loss of life when the American Airlines plane piloted by terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. After a six-month tour, the unit returned to Puerto Rico, only to be reactivated soon after for another tour of duty.

Puerto Rican retired U.S Army General Felix Santoni, currently Civilian Advisor to the Secretary of the Army, told the Herald that between 750 and 1000 Puerto Rican Army reservists are in CENTCOM. "If DOD policy is that Puerto Rican reservists and guardsmen are to serve for an additional time, then that is what they will do, because that is what they signed up for. They are all volunteers." There are approximately 6,000 Puerto Ricans in the Army and Air Force reserves.

At this point it is unclear if the new extension policy will affect morale in the field and future retention and recruitment for the National Guard and Reserve units. Herald sources at the Pentagon insist that its purpose is to normalize, rather than confuse, the deployment and rotation policies of this vital arm of the nation’s defense.

What do you think?

Will morale and recruitment be affected by the Pentagon’s new policy of extended tours of duty in Iraq?

Please vote above.

This Week's Question:
Will morale and recruitment be affected by the Pentagon’s new policy of extended tours of duty in Iraq?

US . Residents
. PR
Yes 40%
28% No 52%
9% Not sure 8%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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