National Guard to use volunteers from area division to monitor Mideast

January 28, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The National Guard will tag volunteers from its 29th Infantry Division, based in Maryland and Virginia, to join active soldiers and reservists for Middle East monitoring duties next year in a move that could reshape future U.S. peacekeeping deployments.

According to a senior Guard officer, it is now only "a formality" for Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Army chief of staff, to issue the order to create the pilot battalion. Starting next month, Maryland and Virginia will each search for 200 soldiers from the 11,000-strong 29th Division for the yearlong assignment, which will cost the Pentagon $20 million.

Half the volunteers' time will be spent training in the United States this year. The other half, starting in January 1995, will be spent in one of the most desolate, inhospitable places on earth -- the southern Sinai desert, which forms part of the border between Israel and Egypt.

The Guard volunteers will join 113 active duty soldiers and 41 reservists as part of the Sinai peacekeeping program, established under the 1979 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Their mission will be to monitor and report on any apparent breaches of the peace agreement in their zone of operation.

They will be paid full active duty and overseas rates, and those who leave jobs for a year are legally guaranteed re-employment on their return.

Although official orders on the mission had not yet been received, Col. Howard S. Freelander, executive officer of the Maryland National Guard, said "the word" had already gone out to the troops and the initial response was positive.

It will be the first time the Guard has joined other forces in a major international peacekeeping operation that will determine whether the National Guard and reservists can be used more extensively for active duty assignment overseas to relieve pressure on a downsized Army. The pilot battalion will free an active-duty battalion for other assignments for a year.

"We wouldn't be conducting a pilot test if we didn't want to do it again in the future," said Maj. Robert Wolfenden, a specialist in integrating active and reserve forces and one of the major architects of the initiative.

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