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Reservists: Even On Front Lines, Always On Back Burner… U.S. Military In 'Sunni Triangle' Mix Their Messages To Placate Restive City

Military Reservists: Even On Front Lines, Always On Back Burner

For the Journal-Constitution

October 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved. 

"We fought for our country and now we're being treated like second-class citizens" was the refrain last week from reservists mobilized for war with Iraq, but now marooned at Fort Stewart.

Hundreds of Army reservists and National Guardsmen are being held over at Fort Stewart for a variety of reasons. These soldiers report substandard housing, long waits for medical appointments and an active-duty Army bureaucracy indifferent to their problems.

After trying to work through the system to resolve their situations, some of these reservists decided to leak their gripes to the press. In short order, the issue rocketed to the top of the Pentagon, which dispatched a high-level Army team to investigate. Commanders at Fort Stewart are working with this team to expedite the processing of the 740 reservists they have there -- including 633 on "medical hold."

Fort Stewart says it is trying hard to accommodate these reservists, but it simply lacks the supply to deal with their demand. The post's hospitals have been drained of key personnel to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; so too have the personnel offices and support activities at Fort Stewart.

In many ways, these soldiers represent the best that America has to offer. They volunteered to join the reserves in a day when most Americans do not serve in uniform; they answered their nation's call to arms; many of them fought in Iraq. The mistreatment alleged by reports in this newspaper and others seems like a grave injustice, and it would be easy to characterize these reservists as brave men and women who now face a malicious Army bureaucracy intent on denying them the benefits they earned. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Beneath the surface of these complaints lies another story -- one of neglect. The real story is about how America came to rely so heavily on its reserves, and how these reserves have suffered from years of neglect and inadequate resources from the federal government despite that reliance.

The story starts with Vietnam. In that war, reservists largely stayed home, due in part to political calculations by the White House that it could not afford to mobilize thousands of reservists from every corner of America. After the Vietnam War ended, America's generals restructured the military in such a way that would require the president to mobilize the reserves for any major conflict.

Army Gen. Creighton W. Abrams played a key role in crafting this "total force" concept, wherein key support units were placed in the reserves that active-duty combat units would need for any major war. The idea was that no president could again wage an unpopular war, because a future war would require reserve mobilization, and that would require popular support.

The system worked fairly well during the Cold War, when everyone in the active and reserve force trained for the big war with the Soviet Union. After the Berlin Wall fell and the first Gulf War ended, things changed. America's military transitioned from a "forward-deployed" force focused on the Soviet Union to an expeditionary force that deployed to small trouble spots around the world.

The role of the reserves changed as well. Support units such as military police, civil affairs and logistics now mattered more for missions like Somalia and Haiti than the combat units in the active force. The operational tempo for reservists increased steadily during the 1990s.

Targeting terrorism

After the Sept. 11 attacks, America mobilized its reserves in a way that hadn't been seen since Korea. At home and abroad, reservists performed missions that active soldiers couldn't (such as guarding airports) and supported the active force in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Since Sept. 11, no fewer than 40,000 reservists have been on active duty at any given time, both for homeland security missions and combat operations overseas. Today, the Defense Department has 168,915 reservists on active duty in support of the war on terrorism. Senior officials have made it clear that the military could not function without the support of the reserves.

Yet, America's reserves have never achieved full equality with their active-duty counterparts. The reservists marooned at Fort Stewart --- as well as their reserve brethren around the world --- have long suffered from a lack of resources. America gives less to its reserve forces at every step --- recruiting, training, deployment, equipment, manning, medical care, even veterans' benefits. In the Army Reserve and National Guard, the nation gets a bargain --- trained soldiers with civilian experience who can be called at a moment's notice, but paid for only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.

Even in Iraq, reservists had to make do with less than their active-duty counterparts. Reserve units typically stand last in line for new equipment, behind active-duty Army units and the Marines. National Guard and Army Reserve units deployed to Iraq with radios older than many of their soldiers --- radios that could not talk securely with the active-duty units they worked with.

Many reserve units drove into Iraq with cargo trucks that were more than 30 years old. Reservists were also last in line to receive the military's new "Interceptor" body armor, specially designed to stop bullets from an AK-47.

Some units, such as Florida's 53rd Infantry Brigade, were designated as enhanced readiness units and given better training, equipment and resources. But they were the exception.

Some benefits denied

The same story has been true on the home front for reservists. The most visible deployment of reservists since Sept. 11 was the placement of National Guard troops in airports. The decision was made to call up these reservists in a state status, not a federal status, so that they could assume a quasi-police role in the airports. That policy decision, however, meant they would be ineligible for certain veterans' benefits because of the different ways the Veterans Administration treats state and federal military service.

Similarly, reserve families have encountered difficulties joining the military TriCare medical insurance program. The Pentagon opposed legislation to extend health care benefits to reservists and their families, saying it was too costly, and ultimately the proposal died. Indeed, 213 of the reservists stuck at Fort Stewart were held over for pre-deployment medical problems that should have been identified before the soldiers were mobilized --- and might have been if they had had better access to military health care before they were called to active duty.

Winston Churchill once said that reservists were "twice the citizen" because of their dual commitments to civil society and the military. We ask them to lead their lives in the knowledge that they could be called away from home and family on short notice to serve in harm's way. America's military depends on these men and women, and its combat units could not function without them.

Yet, America continues to undercut its reserve units, sending them into combat with equipment intended for other soldiers in other wars. If we expect our reservists to serve as modern-day minutemen, then we must train and equip them as such. We cannot expect them to shoulder as much of the burden as they have if we continue to treat them as second-class soldiers.

Philip Carter is a former Army officer who lives in Los Angeles and writes on legal and military affairs.

U.S. Military In 'Sunni Triangle' Mix Their Messages To Placate Restive City

Associated Press Writer

November 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

RAMADI, Iraq (AP) - "We're rolling," Sgt. Samuel Iglasias shouted over his radio at troops in two Humvees behind. The three-vehicle patrol was off into the streets of Ramadi from the relative safety of its base on the Euphrates River.

Danger appeared when a soldier spotted someone with a gun. Iglasias, 44, from Caporojo, Puerto Rico, ordered the convoy to make a sudden U-turn, driving over a median strip to the other side of the road. Soldiers jumped out of the vehicles.

The gunman was soon found: a 15-year-old boy with an air rifle.

"Tell him that this is dangerous," Iglasias said to a robed Arab man who knew some English. "If we see a gun, it's tatatata," he said, mimicking the sound of gunfire.

The boy began to cry. Iglasias tried to comfort him, patting him on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it," Iglasias said. "But no more, OK!"

With that, everyone jumped back in the Humvees and the patrol was rolling again.

In this conservative city of 200,000 people about 60 miles west of Baghdad, anti-U.S. sentiment runs deep. The most innocuous looking object -- an oil barrel, a fire extinguisher or a rubbish bag -- can conceal a deadly roadside bomb.

"Every area is a dangerous area," Iglasias said. "We cannot be complacent."

Ramadi is part of the "Sunni Triangle," an area west and north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad where Saddam Hussein once enjoyed some of his strongest support. Mainly inhabited by Sunni Muslims, the area has been a stronghold of armed resistance to U.S. occupation forces.

It is now on the receiving end of a U.S. military "get tough" policy that followed a dramatic spike in attacks and the downing Nov. 2 of a C-47 Chinook helicopter that killed 16 soldiers outside the nearby city of Fallujah.

As elsewhere in Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, the fight against insurgents is hurt by the lack of reliable intelligence from Iraqis and a wall of distrust and suspicion of Americans in deeply tribal and religious communities.

"I am not getting good intelligence to figure out who is directing the activities, coordinating the attacks, paying for the attacks, getting the weapons and ammunition for the attacks," Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told The Associated Press. "I need help to try and figure out how and who and where is doing the high level of financing, coordinating and directing of this insurgency."

Soldiers complain of lack of cooperation from residents. As a result, the military posts a half dozen soldiers every night on the roof of the 10-story Ramadi hospital to search for the source of mortar fire directed at U.S. military bases and monitor suspicious movements.

Most attacks take place after dark, soldiers say.

Placating Anbar province has been among the toughest challenges faced by U.S. troops. Soldiers must protect their own lives while trying to win over its residents.

For soldiers -- many of them National Guardsmen and reservists without extensive knowledge of the Arab world -- the daily hostility contrasts sharply with their self-image as liberators here to build a new, bright future for Iraq's 25 million people.

"I cannot understand why they cannot understand why we are here," said Capt. Tad Warfal, 38, a National Guardsman from Tallahassee, Fla. "Why cannot they just let us do our job in peace and go home? I am shocked by how violent the culture here is."

Seven months after they arrived here, American troops still draw stares of curiosity and resentment. Iglasias and his men are only too aware of those sentiments.

As the call for the afternoon prayers rang out over the city from the numerous mosques, Iglasias' patrol negotiated the dusty and narrow alleys of a residential neighborhood. Children waved to the soldiers and Iglasias and his men duly waved back. Some of the children jumped up and down to be noticed. Some shouted "Meester, Meester," or just gave the soldiers a thumps-up sign.

Iglasias and Vincent Parker, 39, were prepared. Driver Machado Pascual, a Guardsman from Isabela, Puerto Rico, slowed his Humvee so soldiers in the other two could hand out fistfuls of candy. The more savvy among the kids knew what was in store and confidently approached the Humvee. Younger ones ran away but returned when they spotted the candy.

"Some days, older kids threw them right back at us," said Parker, a father of four from Cocoa Beach, Fla.

As in other hotspots, insurgents in Ramadi have abandoned close-quarter attacks on U.S. troops with small-arms fire. They rely now on mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

Soldiers in Ramadi say the bombs are their worst enemy. Insurgents, they say, are planting stronger devices and are improvising new techniques for hiding them.

A few minutes later, the three Humvees jumped over to the other side of the road and stopped near a battered blue Volkswagen. The car's six passengers were searched, while some of the soldiers examined a heap of garbage and rubble on the side of the road.

The men may have been planting a new roadside bomb, Sgt. Jerry Willie said.

"We are looking for anything suspicious and we also want to keep the bad guys off the streets so they don't to plant new IEDs," referring to improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs. "They are getting better at concealing them."

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