Guard Deployments Spark State Security Concerns

 

In the midst of the largest deployment of state National Guard troops since the Korean War, governors are scrambling to ensure adequate resources are available to combat crises at home and to provide support for soldiers and their families.

According to the most recent statistics, almost 42 percent or 144,000 -- of the states' 345,000 Army National Guard troops currently are deployed or are preparing for deployment, compared with 32 percent just two months ago. Large numbers are being sent to the hot spots of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is the largest deployment of National Guard troops since an overall total of 138,000 guardsmen served on active duty during the conflict in Korea in the 1950s.

Governors are banking on the federal government to make good on a February pledge to even out the burden of Guard troop deployment among states. Still, some states in recent weeks have seen their Guard units drastically depleted. Idaho, for example, has gone from having 4 percent of its Army National Guard deployed or awaiting deployment - the lowest percentage in the nation - to 85 percent - the nation's highest percentage.

Meanwhile, states such as Missouri, North Carolina, South Dakota and Washington have hovered above 50 percent, while states such as Hawaii, Vermont and President Bush's home state of Texas have maintained a relatively low deployment percentage.

When it comes to the National Guard, questions of "how many" and "from where" are important to states because guardsmen serve at the direction of the governor except when called to federal duty, when they are released from the governor's control and instead serve at the direction of the president.

Because National Guard troops play a dual role, large deployments of these part-time soldiers to the national war effort can place a burden on states. Governors count on the Guard in local emergencies including natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and forest fires. In their state roles, Guard members also work as emergency relief providers, assist with search-and-rescue operations and perform counter-drug operations at the will of the governor.

"That's the difference between the National Guard and the reserves: the National Guard has a divided mission, state and federal, and the state mission is always supposed to be supported as well," said Reginald Saville, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that oversees Guard activities.

The federalization of so many troops at once raises questions about whether enough guardsmen will be on hand to handle the approaching wildfire season in the West and hurricane season along the Eastern Seaboard. Some officials also are concerned about a potential shortage of firefighters, police officers and other first responders because a number of guardsmen hold those civilian jobs.

Although officials downplay the possibility of a Guard shortage, some states have taken steps to ensure they are not left short-handed. Washington, for instance, spent $200,000 training new firefighters after the state's largest Guard unit was deployed to Iraq.

In Idaho, where 2,600 Army National Guard members are slated for deployment, officials are confident that other states will provide assistance if a wildfire or other crisis demands more National Guard troops than the state can provide.

"If we encounter a situation where we don't have the resources, we could reach out to other states' adjutants general to say that we need people," said Mark Snider, senior communications advisor to Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne (R).

Idaho, among other states, also is paying heed to the needs of state guard troops once they head overseas.

Kempthorne has launched an effort to pull together segments of the state's private and public sector to launch a 24-hour toll-free information line as well as a Web site providing the latest updates on pending deployments. State armories also are being staffed 12 hours a day to respond to requests from families for assistance. The state is trying to help troops and their families negotiate the complex switch to federal health insurance, called TRICARE.

"Every state, practically, is doing something," said Nolan Jones, a spokesman for the National Governors Association.

In North Carolina, for example, Gov. Mike Easley (D) announced earlier this month that the state would foot the bill to send additional safety equipment, including handheld radios and laptop computers, to the N.C. National Guard's 30th Heavy Separate Brigade, whose members shipped out to the Middle East in February and are now stationed in Iraq.

"The U.S. Army has supplied the authorized basic equipment, but I feel a special obligation to our citizen soldiers in Iraq to provide for any additional needs so they have the equipment they need to protect themselves throughout this mission," Easley stated in a press release.

State legislatures also are addressing the special needs arising from the U.S. military's heavy reliance on specially trained Guard units in the war on terrorism.

A bill that would give private school vouchers to military children passed the Florida House April 22 and now awaits action in the Senate. A House panel in Louisiana the same day passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend veterans' hiring preferences to any military member who has served at least 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, even though no official war has been declared. That bill is now before the full House.

The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution April 20 honoring all of the Guard members in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In response to the recent spike in violence and bloodshed in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently announced that 20,000 U.S. troops - including Guard officials' estimates of 4,100 National Guard troops from 14 states - will stay in Iraq 90 days longer than expected, prompting predictions that the number of federalized guard troops is unlikely to decline in the near future.

The family financial burden caused by such lengthy deployments led the U.S. House of Representatives to vote unanimously April 21 to let National Guard and Reserve troops dip into their retirement savings without incurring the normal 10 percent penalty, as long as the money is restored within two years of the soldier's return to civilian life. The bill still needs Senate approval.

Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, told governors during a Feb. 22 session of the National Governors Association that plans are being drawn to ensure that half of a state's Guard troops are available to the governor at all times.

The plans are part of a broader but still nascent overhaul of the Guard that is meant to reflect the military's increasing reliance on the state-level soldiers.

For now, Blum's goals remain far from met. As of mid-month, 50 percent or more of the Army National Guard troops in 16 states were deployed or awaiting deployment, compared with nine states at the time of Blum's announcement.

Besides the Army National Guard, a much smaller but still significant number of Air National Guard troops also have been called to federal duty. About 6,000 of the 107,000 Air National Guard members or about 6 percent - are deployed or preparing to deploy.

 
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