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The Chicago Tribune September 17, 2005

Guard units stretched thin

By Stephen J. Hedges

WASHINGTON -- The deployment of nearly 50,000 National Guard troops from 50 states as part of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort has exposed debilitating equipment shortages in a force already stretched thin by three years of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard, said in an interview that the needs of Guard units overseas have left troops at home without modern communications and night vision equipment, as well as the vehicles necessary for Guard troops to traverse neighborhoods flooded in the wake of Katrina.

"Communications was the biggest challenge," Blum said of the Guard's post-hurricane performance. "You can't respond if you don't know what the situation is out there."

Most of the Guard's satellite phones--essential during the power and cell phone service outages caused by Katrina--are with troops in Iraq. Indeed, Blum said, the Guard's best equipment is overseas, causing shortages for disaster relief efforts in this country. The heavy reliance on National Guard and Reserve units by active-duty military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has become a concern in Congress, where lawmakers have questioned whether Guard forces are receiving the proper training and equipment for combat operations.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week that "once again our Guard is, I don't like to use the word `stressed,' but they are challenged" by commitments at home and overseas.

In the past, the military, especially the Army, has called on the Guard for logistics and other support during combat operations abroad. That was initially the case in Iraq, but as attacks on Guard units increased, so did their mission.

"The type of war America is waging in Iraq requires some of the same skills that disaster relief in the gulf states requires," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank. "That would include military police, helicopters and military engineers. So there is the possibility that these two missions would come into conflict."

Governors in several states have raised concerns about the Guard's long-term overseas deployments. That's especially true in the West, where a busy fire season may be in store because of drought; Guardsmen have been used to fight fires.

The Guard staffing shortage was an immediate concern as Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, because about 6,000 Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard troops were deployed in Iraq at the time. That left about 12,500 Guard members available in the two states for hurricane relief.

Several hundred soldiers from the Louisiana unit came back early, and the Guard intends to keep all soldiers returning to hurricane-damaged states from Iraq on active duty to help in the storm-ravaged area.

80,000 stationed overseas

But Blum said the absence of those 6,000 troops had an impact on the ability of units in each state to respond immediately. Those Guard units were called to duty before the hurricane hit. Units from Kansas and Indiana were dispatched to fill the gap, Blum said, but did not arrive until the day after the hurricane came ashore.

About 80,000 Guard members are on duty overseas. Most of them are in Iraq, but some also are serving in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sinai and the Horn of Africa. About 300,000 Guard soldiers and airmen remain available for other missions, enough to staff overseas deployments and stateside relief efforts, Blum said.

Katrina has refocused attention on the homeland security role of the Guard and the heavy demands that have been made on it. The Senate Armed Services Committee has held three closed briefings with the Pentagon and Guard on the military's hurricane response, and further congressional review of Guard funding and roles is expected this fall. Some experts said the situation is getting dire.

"These guys get the hand-me-downs," said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "And some of these units are turning into just bunches of guys. I think between the flipping of equipment [to Guard units] and the wearing out of equipment and being under-strength, I don't know how much more you could take as a force."

The National Guard traditionally has received secondhand weapons, aircraft, vehicles and other equipment as the active-duty military is re-equipped. But Blum said the steady pace of Guard deployments overseas has reduced the amount of Guard gear available in each state.

Because of the Guard's close links to the active-duty military, it is difficult to discern what portion of the national defense budget and hurricane relief aid will go to Guard units. But equipment procurement levels for the Guard actually dropped from $447 million in 2004 to $349 million in 2005.

Scrambling to find gear

When Katrina struck, Blum said, the National Guard scrambled to find the gear its troops would need, drawing on units from all over the country. While 32 helicopters were immediately available in the stricken region, he said, 100 more were delivered in the first week.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi requested troops from out of state. The first of those forces --about 1,400 troops--arrived at the Superdome in New Orleans later on the day the storm hit, Blum said. An additional 2,800 troops arrived over the next two days.

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, some Guard units have already returned home. Relief efforts in Mississippi, where a storm surge and high winds receded after inflicting widespread property damage, are being turned over to local Guard units, government agencies and contractors.

In Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans, out-of-state troops are expected to remain for several more weeks.

Ironically, the disaster relief mission could help recruiting, which has been flagging under the weight of continued Iraq deployments.

Re-enlistment is up. And there was enthusiasm among Guard members for the relief mission on the Gulf Coast, despite the fact that the Guard estimates half of those now involved in hurricane relief efforts have already served at least a single one-year tour in Iraq.

Maj. Neal O'Brien, a spokesman for the Ohio National Guard, said Ohio has sent about 1,600 troops to New Orleans. About 7,000 of Ohio's Guard troops--more than half of the state's total force--have gone overseas during the last three years, he said.

But when it came to hurricane relief, O'Brien said, "There was no shortage of volunteers who wanted to go down and help."


Copyright 2005, The Chicago Tribune