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The Charlotte Observer March 9, 2003

Military Pushes Readiness For Guard, Reserves;
Hundreds Of Troops Arriving At Fort Bragg To Train For Possible War

By Sarah Jane Tribble

Each week for the past several months, thousands of Army reservists have been drilled, tested and equipped for war here on the rolling hills of Eastern North Carolina.

Now, on the eve of a potential war with Iraq, what everybody wants to know: Are they ready for prime time?

With its increasing reliance on reservists in all branches, but especially the Army, the U.S. military has spent decades evolving their role. During the Persian Gulf War and the buildup to it, questions were raised about reservists' capabilities and whether they were up to the task.

In recent interviews with reservists and military brass, most said they think the troops are up to the task - though outside experts say that remains to be seen.

"We ensure that the soldier can do tasks at the skill level that is necessary for the war," said National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. A. Frank Lever III, who toured Fort Bragg on Friday to review troop readiness. The National Guard makes up the largest portion of combat troops in the military's reserve component.

Many soldiers Lever talked with have never been in combat, he said, but they are ready to go.

"If they say they are a little scared, well, I'm a little scared. We all are. War is not something you go into without being a little scared," he said. "It's a different environment and, when we train, we can't shoot at people."

Fort Bragg, which is one of the nation's largest mobilization stations to the Middle East, is bursting with reservists. As hundreds of reservists arrive weekly, staff members struggle to find housing, equipment and time on the training grounds for practice rounds to get them up to speed on skills for combat. When they do, they ship out.

Phil Anderson, a former Marine and military analyst for the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says, "It's safe to assume that there are problems just because of the speed at which people are being called up and deployed. There are certainly people who don't meet the standards."

Military officials never provide enough time for reservists to get up to speed with active-duty demands, said Piers Wood, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and visiting senior fellow at the think-tank GlobalSecurity.Org.

"The reserves are always kidding themselves, saying, 'I'm ready to go in three weeks,' " Wood said. "Bull, they're not ready to go for three months."

In addition, Wood said, many troops in the build-up against Iraq have been deployed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and haven't had downtime that would allow skills to atrophy.

As of the middle of last week, about 176,000 reservists had been activated nationwide, and experts say about 90 percent of those are either in the Middle East or working to support the efforts there. About 5 percent of those are from units based in the Carolinas, including Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force units.

There will be about 300,000 troops in the Mideast, but no breakdown on how many reservists are actually there is available. Carolinas troops have jobs that range from flying helicopters in combat to working in mess halls to driving trucks of supplies to constructing camps. Most are not on the front lines of combat, experts say.

U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, a Concord Republican who represents the 8th District, which includes Fort Bragg, described reservists as "more valuable than ever."

He said any problems he hears about tend to be regarding equipment

"We're finding that some of these folks are coming in without the equipment they need," Hayes said. "The folks at Bragg tell me that they will not send them without the equipment, but they're having to scrape."

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Crucial role

Since the public backlash against the draft in the Vietnam War era, the Army has increasingly relied on its reserve forces, employing the smallest possible active-duty force, filling in with reserve forces and saving on salaries.

Many reservists have been called up in the past year and a half, post Sept. 11, which has given the military time to refine how it deals with them and given the reservists a chance to get up to speed.

One N.C. soldier stationed in Afghanistan said last week that the reserve troops play a crucial role in the Middle Eastern operations.

"It is usually a bit easier to tell which units are reserve versus active," Capt. Grier Martin, an Army Reserve soldier from Raleigh, wrote in an e-mail interview last week. "However, from what I hear the job performance of the reserve units here has been superb."

In another sign that more roles are being given to them, National Guard combat units are scheduled for the first time to assume full responsibility for the U.S. mission in Kosovo in June 2003.

"These guys are up to the task and they'll fulfill the requirements," Anderson said.

But Anderson said there is always a concern about the reservists' readiness for wartime missions, because they are not full-time soldiers.

"This is not their profession," Anderson said. "They are part-time, citizen soldiers, so you can't hold them up to the same standard" as their active-duty counterparts.

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Gulf War questions

The call-up of more than 240,000 reservists for the 1991 Persian Gulf War marked the largest mobilization of reserves since the Korean War, according to military-contracted research briefs. But it also had its problems, according to postwar studies.

Large numbers of personnel in three National Guard armor and infantry brigades, which consisted of about 4,000 soldiers each, had not been completely trained to do their assigned jobs for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, according to a 1991 Government Accounting Office report commissioned by Congress.

After being activated, nearly 600 soldiers, or about 8 percent in two of the brigades, had to attend school to ready them for their tasks.

Noncommissioned officers in the brigades lacked leadership skills and job knowledge to train their soldiers. And many of the soldiers could not be deployed because of dental and medical problems.

Another study by the nonprofit Rand Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., and paid for by the Army, found that in 1994, 74 percent of enlisted soldiers in the Army Reserve were qualified for their military occupational specialty. At the time, the report said that level was a typical rate that had persisted over many years.

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Few new studies

While there are no recent public federal reports about soldier readiness, military officials responded to a 2000 Government Accounting Office report about the integration of active and reserve units by saying the reserves had improved.

"Using Operations Desert Shield/Storm as a baseline, the Army's efforts to integrate active and reserve combat forces clearly have improved over the past decade," military officials said.

Researchers at both Rand and the General Accounting Office say there have been no follow-up studies on troop readiness. Rather, they are being asked to look at how reservists are dealing with the disparity in pay between their civilian and military jobs and the length of time they are deployed.

At Fort Bragg, where operations commander Col. Tad Davis watches daily as about 4,500 reserve soldiers prepare for deployment overseas, the troops appear eager.

"But when you see these folks on the ground, with their commitment, with their enthusiasm, with their patriotism, there is no doubt in your mind that they're going to go do a good job, no matter where we ask them to go," Davis said.

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Sarah Jane Tribble: (704) 358-5159; stribble@charlotteobserver.com

National Guard, Reserve Units

Reserve units, which include both National Guard and reservists, traditionally serve about 39 days a year in peacetime. That's one weekend a month and two weeks of intense training a year. But all that has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. New units are being called up daily. The Defense Department has estimated that 176,000 soldiers had been called to active duty as of March 5. Military pay ranges widely, depending on years in service and stature. Lower-level enlisted soldiers, E-2s, are paid about $170 for a weekend drill and, once activated, get about $1,300 a month.

Total From All Branches In the Carolinas:
8,676

National totals by Branch

AIr Force
23,109

Army
127,487

Coast Guard
2,931

Marine Corps
15,022

navy
8,004

Source: Defense Department


Copyright 2003, The Charlotte Observer