September 20, 2005
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As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast soldiers from the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard watched the progress of the storm with great interest. Unfortunately for them it was not from an operations center somewhere in their respective states. Instead they were 10,000 miles away in Iraq trying to obtain any scrap of information they could about their homes and families caught in the path of the Katrina's massive destructive force.
The moment Katrina hit Louisiana, thirty-five percent of that state's National Guard troops were deployed in Iraq. In Mississippi, ground zero for the storm, nearly 40 percent of the National Guard troops were in the Middle East. Indisputably it had an effect on the readiness of the disaster-afflicted region to quickly respond with the home team. Even Army National Guard cheerleader Lt. General H. Steven Blum, Chief of the Army's National Guard Bureau, (Above) couldn't dance around that question. When asked if the deployments of these National Guard units had a negative impact on the initial response, Blum admitted, "Had those brigades been at home and not in Iraq, their expertise and capabilities could have been brought to bear".
Duh! With a combined total of over 6,000 National Guard soldiers deployed overseas from the two most impacted states, clearly initial relief and recovery efforts suffered immeasurably as a result. Instead of saddling up for the emergency, or seeking out insurgents in Iraq, the men and women from the Mississippi and Louisiana National Guard were riveted to televisions sets in Iraq wondering about their families.
During the initial hours of the disaster Lt. Colonel Jordan Jones of the Louisiana National Guard told the press, "They're all watching TV and some have seen their neighborhoods completely submerged in water." The mesmerized soldiers held their collective breath while more information trickled in via the Internet and from the American Red Cross for those troopers not lucky enough to have access to a television set, according to LARNG First Sergeant Errol Williams.
The 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (L.: 256th BCT Unit Insignia) of the Louisiana National Guard was already preparing to return home when Katrina made landfall. Last Friday Army Brig. Gen. John P. Basilica, 256th Brigade Combat Team commander, announced from Baghdad his soldiers had already started the redeployment process when Katrina slammed ashore. Coincidently, they had been previously scheduled to return stateside at that time anyway since their one year tour of duty participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom was over.
The Louisiana Guardsmen's lukewarm response to joining the relief effort when they returned to their devastated state is indicative of just how burned out the Army National Guard has become enduring multiple deployments and multiple missions. Less than half of Louisiana 's deployed troopers said they were willing to join the relief effort when they returned home. An informal poll of the 2,500 soldiers in the unit showed that about 800 are interested in continuing their service, 1,500 want to return to civilian life, and 200 were undecided, Basilica said. Their flight from the 256 th will leave the brigade combat ineffective, another victim of non-hostile causes in the Global War on Terror.
About 500 soldiers from the 256th were directly affected by the hurricane, Basilica noted last week. These soldiers were sent home first, and the Army and Defense Department are providing unprecedented levels of support for those and other soldiers affected by the catastrophe, Basilica said.
Members of the Mississippi National Guard's 155 th Brigade Combat Team (L: Unit Crest 155 BCT) find themselves in a much different situation. Out of the 3,300 troops in the unit, only a mere 80 have been granted emergency leave since the hurricane devastated the coast of Mississippi. MSARNG officials reported. The unit is not due to re-deploy stateside until early next year and there is no plan to let then leave before their tour is scheduled to end, Army officials announced. Chances are the Louisiana unit would have been in the same situation if they had deployed on a different time table.
In response to the situation the Army deployed a brigade-sized unit of the the 82nd (All-American) Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C. (L. All-American unit insignia) to New Orleans to assist with hurricane rescue and recovery operations. The 82nd is the Army's premier rapid-reaction combat force, the nation's strategic reserve, and dedicated first responders to any international crisis - our big stick. Meanwhile their LARNG and MSARNG brothers in Iraq suffered the visions of the damned while they sweated out news about their families back home. No doubt the Guards soldier's combat effectiveness suffered while they waited to hear about their families, but given the Army's strange system of priorities these days - what the hell, they are just the National Guard troops anyway!
The rapid deployment capability of the 82nd could have allowed the sky troopers to deploy to Iraq within 48 hours ready to stomp into the 155th's Area of Operations and kick some serious insurgent ass while their Mississippi cousins returned home to whatever was left for them to put back together again. It is ironic in a twisted sort of way that as a nation we now find ourselves in the midst of what has been called the largest national disaster in our history and the MSARNG isn't there to help at a time when they are so desperately needed by their families. Ask any National Guard man or woman from any state and they will tell you their primary mission is to protect and defend their homes... and not a single one of them is from anywhere in Iraq.
This situation not only shows the lack of compassion in the Pentagon, but exposes the dangerous over-reliance on the National Guard in the Global War on Terrorism. National Guard officials have admitted that there may have been a lag of up to 48 hours in the response time after the hurricane due to the absence of the two units. With 78,000 National Guard troops deployed overseas, other states would also find themselves short of resources during a disaster.
Recognizing the potential danger, Montana 's Governor Brian Schweitzer sounded the alarm in his sparsely populated state. Forty-four percent of Montana 's NG troops are already deployed to Iraq. If Montana has to cope with an emergency such as the huge wild fires the drought-stricken region is prone to, Schweitzer recently admitted "the state of Montana does not have that many assets outside the National Guard".
Bottom line – instead of Army National Guard troops staying home in Mississippi and Louisiana to do what they are trained and equipped to do, they are scattered across the world fighting the Global War on Terror while superbly trained paratroopers from the best division in the US Army is assisting in hurricane relief efforts. If it wasn't so damned serious it would be laughable!
In November of 2003, a bipartisan group from the House of Representatives called for increasing the size of the Army by two divisions, an increase of up to 40,000 new troops. Additionally, legislation was introduced in the same year to increase the Air Force by 28,000 and the Marine Corps by 15,000.
Obviously the call to action has not been heeded and our military is now being stretched to the breaking point by multiple deployments. This recent crisis has exposed the danger of relying on the National Guard to take on a role of that has been traditionally filled by the regular Army. If the U.S. intends to maintain the operational tempo it is at now over the long term the size of the active duty military needs to be increased, period. How can we commit to a Global War on Terrorism that some have suggested could last for generations and not expand the capability of our Armed Forces?
Maybe Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will someday provide an answer to that question – so far his response is all smoke and mirrors.
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