Guard bears burden of war

SUN JOURNAL

Mobilization: America's part-time soldiers are being deployed to the combat zone, as they were in previous conflicts.

December 10, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Capt. Harry S. Truman commanded a Missouri National Guard artillery battery in France during the summer of 1918, the unit's 75 mm shells were used to repel the German Army.

Now part of Truman's old battery is reducing its firepower to target new foes.

More than 100 artillerymen from the former president's unit - now nicknamed "Truman's Own" - are heading to Fort Leonard Wood, an Army base in Missouri that has developed a monthlong training regimen to turn artillerymen into military police.

The Pentagon says increasing the number of MPs is crucial for guarding U.S. bases and patrolling neighborhoods from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Truman's Own will replace their 105 mm towed field artillery pieces with M-16s and 9 mm pistols.

An estimated 1,500 Guard artillerymen from Missouri and five other states - Texas, Illinois, Tennessee, New Jersey and Montana - are being trained as MPs. The first newly minted police will begin providing base security next month, allowing active-duty MPs now guarding those military installations to deploy overseas.

"Most of [the Guard units] will stay stateside; some will go to Germany," said Col. Frank Grass, chief of operations for the Army National Guard. "It will free up the active duty and they can head out."

This is not the first time the Guard has been asked to take on a new mission, says Maj. Les' Melnyk, historian for the Army National Guard, which prides itself on being America's oldest military organization. It traces its roots to the militia formed at the Virginia settlement of Jamestown in 1607.

When America entered World War I, much of the Guard was composed of infantry units. And some of them were retrained with machineguns and artillery, says Melnyk. Truman's 129th Field Artillery, however, had fired its first long-range guns in the early 19th century.

During World War II, Guard cavalry units traded their horses for tanks, while coast artillerymen were taught how to shoot at a different threat - airplanes.

Both world wars saw the total mobilization of the National Guard, which serves at the behest of the state governors until called to duty by the president.

In August 1917, about 380,000 Guardsmen were mobilized for World War I, more than doubling the size of the active-duty Army at the time. During that conflict, about 40 percent of the American divisions that saw combat came from the Guard, which suffered 42 percent of the U.S. casualties.

And during World War II, the 300,000 Guardsmen who were mobilized in late 1940 and early 1941 were soon overshadowed by the 11.2 million American volunteers and draftees who served in the war. Still, some Guard units were prized by commanders.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower selected the Guard's 29th Division, which included two Maryland infantry regiments, to storm Omaha Beach on D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some of the 350,000 soldiers of the Army National Guard have been repeatedly tapped by the Pentagon, particularly military policemen, civil affairs units and engineers. Guard units account for the highest percentage of those jobs in the U.S. military.

Today in Iraq and throughout the world, 77,165 of the Army Guard - about 22 percent of the entire force - and 6,664 out of the 107,000-member Air National Guard are serving on active duty. And the percentages are expected to increase next spring, as more Guard troops head into Iraq.

Of the 16,500 MPs serving in the National Guard, about 11,000 are either deployed or preparing to begin federal service. Among them are 144 members of the 115th Military Police Battalion from Salisbury and Parkville, Md., which is patrolling the Baghdad International Airport and is one of three Maryland Guard units serving in Iraq.

Another Guard group, a Baltimore-area engineering unit that has yet to be identified, is expected to be called up for Iraq duty, according to Maj. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard.

And the percentage of National Guard troops among the total U.S. force in Iraq is expected to increase next year. Currently, 29,000 Guard troops are among the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, about 22 percent of the total, according to Guard officials. By next spring, the total U.S. force is expected to drop to 105,000, with 35,700 being made up of Guard troops, or 34 percent, officials said.

Increasing the numbers of part-time soldiers in Iraq, with the ripple effects on families and jobs, could be the greatest test of public sentiment over the Iraq occupation, according to some Guard officials.

For the first time in five decades, large-scale Guard infantry and armor units will be heading into a war zone, when they deploy to Iraq early next year.

The 30th Heavy Separate Brigade (Armor) from the North Carolina National Guard is now training to head to Iraq in the spring, along with two Guard combat brigades from Arkansas and Washington state. Each unit has about 5,000 soldiers.

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