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The Guard's burden.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The National Guard and Reserves are bearing a sadly disproportionate share of the burden of President Bush's disastrous war in Iraq.

A recent Associated Press story noted that America's citizen soldiers are suffering a markedly higher share of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Since the war began, reservists have accounted for a fourth of all U.S. military deaths, but their portion has nearly doubled since last year.

For the first nine months of this year, reservists accounted for 36 percent of deaths. For August and September, the figure soared to 56 percent. By contrast, they represented only 10 percent of the casualties during the 2003 invasion and 20 percent during all of 2004.

The Iraq war has marked a troubling shift in the role of reservists, who in past decades were more likely to fight forest fires or build parks than they were to find themselves engaged in front-line combat. In Iraq, however, Guard and Reserves have taken on roles ranging from driving supply trucks to manning checkpoints to participating in major offensives. At one point earlier this year, more than half of combat forces in Iraq were National Guard.

That's unprecedented. Not even at the height of World War II did reservists play such a major combat role. It's also troubling. The Pentagon's decision to give the Guard a prominent combat role has diminished its capacity to respond to natural disasters or even to potential terrorist strikes at home.

The Guard's initial scramble to bring aid and order to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina illustrated this problem. Roughly 40 percent of the National Guard troops from Louisiana and Mississippi were on active duty in Iraq when the storm arrived, forcing commanders to secure help from states as far away as Maryland and Oregon.

The Pentagon strategy has left Guard units across the country with, on average, half their usual equipment on hand. Shortages of equipment ranging from helicopters to radios to Humvees have hindered the ability of Guard units to respond to crisis missions - from hurricanes in the Gulf Coast to forest fires in the Northwest.

Nor has the Guard received increases in funding commensurate with its increased combat role. By some estimates, the Guard remains $20 billion short of the equipment it needs to fulfill its current mission. Meanwhile, Guard members receive overall benefits that are inferior to those of active-duty troops.

It's not surprising that the Guard is having a hard time filling recruiting quotas. The police officers, engineers, accountants, students, housewives and others who have traditionally signed up for part-time Guard duty are increasingly reluctant to sign up for what may well become full-time combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials say they intend to start scaling back the Guard and Reservist presence in Iraq and replace them with active-duty troops. They should do more than that.

The Pentagon should reconsider new long-range strategies that would place more, not less, reliance on Guard units for combat. It should recognize the critical roles that citizen soldiers play in their home states and ensure that they have adequate funding, equipment and troop levels to meet those responsibilities.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Citizen soldiers pay heavy price for combat role
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 12, 2005
Words:528
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