Md., Va. Army National Guardsmen may be picked for mission in Sinai

December 11, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- An Army National Guard unit from Maryland and Virginia is the leading candidate for an unprecedented peacekeeping mission by U.S. military reserves in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, military officials said yesterday.

The "Blue and Gray" unit, which fought at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy nearly 50 years ago, has already started lining up volunteers among its combat troops for what could amount to nearly a year on active duty, possibly beginning in early 1995.

"The 29th Infantry Division is clearly the one we're considering," said Maj. Gen. John R. D'Araujo Jr., director of the Army National Guard.

The Army wants to name a unit as sponsor of a special battalion of volunteers that would undergo several months of pre-deployment training before beginning a six-month mission patrolling the Sinai. Selecting volunteers would avoid having to mobilize guardsmen for active duty.

General D'Araujo said in an interview that he and the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau have been working closely with the Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., on a detailed plan to use the Army National Guard for the first time as peace monitors in the Sinai. Command officials "know our preferences," he said.

A final selection of a sponsoring guard unit will be made after Jan. 20, Army officials said.

The Sun reported in October that senior Army officials, anxious to avoid sending too many active-duty combat troops on open-ended peacekeeping missions, wanted to add guardsmen to the six-month rotation of forces that occupy the barbed-wire outposts along the Gulf of Aqaba and atop mountain peaks in the Sinai.

The mission has been under way since April 1982 under terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. About 2,100 troops from 11 countries are assigned to the Multinational Force and Observers mission, in cluding at least one U.S. light infantry battalion of 500 to 600 troops drawn from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and other quick-response "contingency" forces.

General D'Araujo said the 29th Division, with troops in Maryland and Virginia, would be suited for the Sinai mission because it is the only light infantry division in the Army National Guard. Unit leaders have been "eager" to accept the mission, other military officials said.

The general has also approached New York's 27th Infantry Brigade, which responded favorably. But a Sinai mission "would detract" from the brigade's main job of augmenting the 10th Mountain Division, one of the Army's contingency forces, he said.

Col. Howard S. Freedlander, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, said, "We certainly have expressed our willingness to participate in that mission."

He said he understood that Maryland combat units might split a requirement with Virginia units to provide 400 to 500 volunteers, each of whom would have to be able to leave their civilian jobs for the duration.

While Virginia has two combat brigades, Maryland has only the 3rd Brigade, headquartered in Pikesville. Efforts to reach officials at the 29th Division headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., were unsuccessful.

If the 29th Division gets the Sinai mission, the colonel said, volunteers would be drawn from the Pikesville unit, which encompasses these four Maryland battalions: 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, in White Oak; 2nd Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, in Chestertown; 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, in Baltimore City; and 2nd Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, in Dundalk.

Army officials regard the Sinai as a safe, peaceful environment that will allow them to test the ability of the National Guard to perform as effectively as active forces. Both the 115th and 175th regiments of the Maryland Army National Guard fought alongside active-duty troops and received heavy casualties during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944.

Meantime, Defense Secretary Les Aspin released the Clinton administration's blueprint for cutting the National Guard and Army Reserve by 127,000 jobs over six years and reorganizing the reserves for specific wartime and peacetime missions.

The plan -- negotiated by top officers of all the active and reserve components -- would reduce the Guard to 367,000 and the Reserve to 208,000 for a total of 575,000 by 1999. The Guard currently is at 422,700 and the Reserve at 279,600. The administration plans to cut the active-duty force to 1.4 million from 1.7 million.

The Guard would be more tightly focused on preparing for

combat and remaining ready to respond to domestic civil emergencies. The Reserve will be more oriented toward combat support missions.

The Reserve, for example, will give to the Guard 4,400 positions in aviation, and the Guard will give to the Reserve some of its combat engineer, medical and transport positions.

Colonel Freedlander said the Maryland Guard should be able to replace Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopters with larger, more advanced UH-60 Blackhawks, meaning "we could provide assistance much faster, be it to Oakland or Crisfield."

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