National Guard Burden Shared Unequally
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Oklahoma and a handful of other states are supplying the lion's share of National Guard troops for U.S. military actions, as the number of Guard troops being deployed reaches historic highs.
More than 106,000 of the Guard's 348,000 members have been mobilized or notified to prepare for federal service in the war on terrorism. Not since the Korean War have so many Guard soldiers been called up for active duty, according to the National Guard Association of the United States.
The Guard, which includes both the Army and Air National Guard, has a dual role -- serving at the command of state governors in peacetime but available to be called to active duty by the president.
The increase in Guard service has been building since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Guard troops were used to beef up security at airports across the nation. Many members were then activated for the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly all of the Guard troops employed by the U.S. military may be in service for up to two years under a "partial mobilization."
Currently, more than one-third of the Guard troops activated or alerted for federal service come from just 10 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to figures from the National Guard Bureau, the administrative arm of the Guard.
At the top of that list is Oklahoma, where 4,874, 70 percent, of the state's available National Guard troops, have been deployed for federal service or alerted that they will be called up. Oklahoma is one of eight states where more than half of the guard troops have been activated, a group that also includes Arkansas, Maine, North and South Dakota, South Carolina, Utah and Washington.
Oklahoma's distinction may be a point of pride for its residents. With five military installations, the state has a long history of military service and "a deep and abiding sense of patriotism," said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
Alabama has the largest number of Guard soldiers 5,100 who have been activated or alerted. This represents about 43 percent of its available Guard members. Another 13 states have had less than 20 percent of their Guard troops called up for federal service, including Pennsylvania and President Bush's home state of Texas.
These two states have the second- and third-most Guard members in the nation respectively, but only 16 percent of Pennsylvania's Guard members and 17 percent of Texas' have been deployed or alerted.
"It's not exactly even, is it?" said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a lobbying and advocacy group for the Guard. But Goheen said there are legitimate practical reasons for the disparities, including the particular military needs of the mission and the kind of training each state's Guard members have had.
The combat commanders in Iraq decide what kinds of troops they will need and how many, said U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Rodney. Active military personnel are always chosen first to fill needs, he said, and when Guard troops are required, the National Guard Bureau makes the decision on which units will go. Right now, what is needed in Iraq is motorized infantry "guys who can ride in a jeep to root out guerrillas and insurgents," Rodney said.
The record number of Guard troops going overseas has not yet taxed the Guard's ability to respond to domestic demands, according to Guard members and state officials. "We are more than prepared to deal with in-state emergencies with the remaining troops," said Michael Marchand, a spokesman for Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D). Some 66 percent, 4,031 of Washington's available Guard has been activated or alerted.
The high number of troops being called up has changed the nature of Guard service, said Capt. Christine Munn of the Arkansas National Guard. In the past, the typical Guard member signed up to earn college money and had little expectation of any real military action. Now, Munn said, recruiters are very careful to explain the Guard's active role.
In fact, she added, one Arkansas unit -- an Air National Guard squadron that collects military intelligence -- has been mobilized for more than two years.
"Since Desert Storm [the 1991 U.S.-led military operation against Iraq] we've seen the role of Guard units change," she said. "The whole Weekend Warrior' concept that's pretty much gone."