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San Antonio Express-News September 5, 2004

Citizen-soldiers not always fit to serve

By Sig Christenson
Express-News Military Writer

Texas Army National Guard Maj. Paul Pecena was ordered to Iraq with the 36th Infantry Division, but he flunked the physical.

He isn't happy about it.

"I didn't think of it as a ticket out," said Pecena, 40, of Rockwall. "If you train for 16 years to play football and then when it comes time to go to the game they tell you, 'Well, you're going to have to wait and play in the next one,' certainly there's some disappointment there."

Across America, roughly 4,000 National Guard troops have been rated unfit for active duty, adding tension to an increasingly strained force.

Between 5 percent and 7 percent of the Texas Guard's 19,727 soldiers and airmen have failed physicals after being mobilized. One in three of those who failed is a "hard no-go" — someone with a chronic illness such as diabetes.

Nationwide, 2 percent of all guardsmen are classified as medically non-deployable once called up.

It could be worse. The national number is a percentage point or so down from Gulf War I, and so far the problem hasn't affected the Army's mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

National Guard Bureau spokesman Dan Donohue stressed that his service has never failed to deliver needed troops, no matter its problems. But he and others agree it is a readiness issue in a force that's 3.9 years older on average than the active-duty soldier, who is 28.

The problem is on the radar at the bureau and the Pentagon, although Donohue said the nature of guard deployment makes it unlikely large numbers of these troops will be deemed unfit. That's because guards around the country deploy a quarter of their soldiers overseas at any one time, he said.

The system itself has created uncertainty about the severity of the problem. Guard members get physicals once every five years.

A physician scrutinizes them again if mobilized, as Pecena and 3,500 other Texans have been for a yearlong stint in Iraq starting early next year. Those flunking will be classified a "hard no-go" or "soft no-go," depending on the problem.

Soft no-gos can hope their doctor can correct the problem, as Pecena has done after being diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia. The condition restricts oxygen in his blood, causing him to tire faster than normal.

The cause hasn't been established, but Pecena's physician has ruled out internal bleeding. As the search for a diagnosis ensues, he hopes his condition can be reversed and he can deploy.

"I guess I'm a soft no-go in that category," said Pecena, a Mesquite policeman with 18 years in the Army Guard.

The typical Texas guardsman is nine years older than the active-duty soldier, and like any other 37-year-old can show signs of wear and tear. The 714 Texans ruled ineligible for service overseas have suffered from maladies ranging from high blood pressure and diabetes to bad backs and bum knees.

Those treated for a "soft no-go," such as high blood pressure or dental problems — a surprisingly common malady — likely will deploy. But someone with diabetes will face a medical board and possible discharge.

There are no quick fixes.

Guard and Reserve members do not qualify for Tricare, the military health care system. If they're not insured, the part-time troops aren't likely to reverse a medical problem.

Congress last year approved a trial Tricare program for the Guard and the Reserve but didn't fund it, said Maj. Gen. Wayne D. Marty, the Texas Guard's adjutant general. Two similar bills are pending, he added, one that would cover uninsured.

Neither Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nor the National Guard Bureau's director, Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, favors including part-time troops in the military's medical care system. They did not respond to interview requests.

The Texas Guard's chief spokesman, Army Lt. Col. John Stanford, said the Pentagon is "doing it the cheap way" and likens the policy to a motorist who doesn't maintain his car.

His boss concurs.

"They're looking at it from a financial point of view and saying, 'Can the Defense Department afford to give health care to the Reserve component?'" Marty said. "My take on that is, can we afford not to?"

The Reserve component's increasing role in American overseas commitments is the reason for that. At weeks' end, the Pentagon had mobilized 163,318 National Guard and Reserve personnel. That was 1,672 reservists more than in the previous week.

One in every three soldiers in Iraq is a member of the Guard or Reserve, up from 25 percent in the first year of the war, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

The Texas Guard had just under 7,100 soldiers and airmen in federal service this weekend, 748 of them in Iraq and 50 in Afghanistan. Another 400 with the 386th Engineer Battalion have been sent to augment the Tennessee Army National Guard, and 3,500 others are training at Fort Hood and Camp Shelby, Miss.

Those soldiers will go to Iraq early next year in the Guard's largest combat mobilization since World War II.

The nature of part-time service makes it harder to know for sure how many holes units will have when Washington delivers a mobilization order.

"We see the majority of our soldiers once per month," Stanford said. "The active Army sees their soldiers every day. So, when it is time to mobilize our soldiers, we sometimes learn important things that have happened to them in the 28 days each month we don't see them."

It isn't always health woes or pregnancies that surprise commanders. Sometimes troops show up with convictions for drunken driving or domestic violence.

An amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 prevents soldiers convicted of domestic violence from carrying weapons or ammunition, even on duty. It's that sort of baggage citizen-soldiers bring to the table today.

The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon said part-timers are "21st-century Americans," people perhaps more patriotic than most but still training one weekend a month, and wrapped in the civilian world.

Pecena, a father of four ranging from 6 months to 9 years, concedes home life tugs at him but thinks of his father and uncles, all of them World War II veterans.

"Why should I be any different from them? If it's my turn to serve, how can I complain about that? If personal considerations were the only considerations, sure I'd like to stay home," he said. "If it's my time to be deployed, I have a duty."

Copyright 2004, San Antonio Express-News