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The Press-Enterprise July 14, 2005

Tour of duty nears end for citizen soldiers

Thousands of reservists, National Guard members are coming home

By Gregor McGavin

Two years after the largest call-up of citizen soldiers in a half-century, most National Guard members and reservists soon will complete their tours and come home to communities nationwide, including some in the Inland Empire.

Of the more than 210,000 part-time military personnel deployed overseas or across the country after the invasion of Iraq, about 71,500 -- almost one-third -- have already returned, according to the Department of Defense. About 138,500 remain on active duty, but the two-year limit on activation will run out within months for most.

Perhaps no place better illustrates the decline than the Inland area, where more than a thousand part-time soldiers have returned in recent months. At March Air Reserve Base near Moreno Valley, the only local military installation with citizen soldiers still deployed, only 81 reservists and two Guard members are deployed overseas or elsewhere in the country.

There are now 5,100 Guard members from California serving abroad, most of them in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Douglas Hart, a spokesman for the California National Guard.

Reserve and National Guard troops make up more than one-third of those serving in Iraq. In light of low recruitment rates, those continued departures are expected to leave the military at least temporarily short-handed in some jobs and possibly lead to longer tours for full-time troops. Meanwhile, the de-activations are freeing up Guard members to return to their more traditional role of fighting forest fires and responding to other emergencies in their home states.

Thousands of citizen soldiers are returning to their families and regular jobs to be more civilian, less soldier.

"Right now it's not our turn," said Maj. John McBrearty, who commands a San Bernardino-based National Guard unit and returned in February after 18 months in Iraq. "We went and served proudly, did our job and came back. I don't think we'll be going back soon."

The 900-member 1st Battalion, 185th Infantry Regiment, headquartered in San Bernardino, returned earlier this year from Iraq in several stages.

Many of those personnel have reached or are approaching the two-year limit on Reserve and National Guard activations.

The plan is to have Iraqi security forces and regular U.S. troops play a larger role, said John Pike, who heads the Virginia-based military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org.

The Army National Guard, which accounts for almost 116,000 troops, by far the largest part-time contingent, missed its recruiting goals last year by 5,000, or 10 percent.

Army Lt. Col. Carl Ey said there are no plans to keep any soldiers away from home longer.

McBrearty, who works full-time at the National Guard Armory in San Bernardino, said most of his men served about 18 months. But few are worried they will be called up again to serve the other six months they could be asked to serve under federal law.

John Wuerth, 31, spent 10 months maintaining planes in England for the Air Force after he was activated in early 2002.

Wuerth, a Hemet resident who works in maintenance for the Eastern Municipal Water District in Perris, came home in March 2003.

"After my enlistment was up I did not re-enlist, so I am now a full-fledged civilian," he said.

Wuerth comes from a military family. Between him and his four brothers, they have served in all branches of the Armed Forces. He had put in 10 years of active and Reserve duty when he decided to leave the military.

"I got out because I have four children, and my oldest is 10," he said. "I coach my kids' baseball, I do a lot of community stuff. I had to make a decision on which way to go."


Copyright 2005, The Press-Enterprise Company