After 11 years, Army recalls Howard man

Reserves: The military taps a rarely used pool of individuals who thought they were out of uniform for good.

August 24, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In 1993, with the Cold War over and no formidable enemy in sight, the Army decided to drastically reduce its ranks. So Sgt. 1st Class Rolando Rivera, a soldier for 15 years who was serving a pleasant tour in Germany, was told the service no longer needed his computer skills.

Then this past May, Rivera got a letter from the Army telling him he would be serving in uniform once again, this time in desolate and dangerous Afghanistan. A principal systems engineer for a software company, Rivera, 44, has not fired a weapon in more than a decade. His old uniform, hanging in a basement closet, is too snug for his middle-aged torso.

The Columbia resident is part of the Individual Ready Reserve, a rarely used pool of Army Reservists who do not train or belong to units but have each been collecting several thousand dollars a year. Now, with the military stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are being called up by the thousands for support roles in both theaters.

Rivera is due to report for active duty Sept. 3, according to his lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, but is balking. While he has been paid more than $100,000 during more than a decade in the IRR, he said he deserves an exemption because of family circumstances - his wife has a heart condition - and his honorable prior service.

"I question how much weight was given to my years of service and the financial hardship we will suffer as a result of this call to active duty," Rivera said. "I think after 15 years of service I've already met my obligation to my country."

Ralph Peters, a defense analyst and former Army officer, has little sympathy for Rivera.

"He took the [Army's] money, though, didn't he?" Peters said. "At the end of the day, this person doesn't have a moral or ethical argument."

Exemption rejected

The Army has turned down Rivera's request for an exemption, and he is appealing the decision to the Army's adjutant general.

"How is it I get called first?" asked Rivera, maintaining that the Army is supposed to consider prior service in determining which reservists to deploy.

"Not having drilled in more than 10 years, my soldier skills are rusty," he said. "It could not only be detrimental to me but dangerous to the soldiers in my unit who would depend on me."

Rivera also said the deployment would be financially devastating, slashing his annual income of more than $180,000. And the overall stress would worsen his wife's heart condition, according to her doctor.

Like thousands of other reservists, Rivera will receive weeks of training, including weapons handling, before he deploys. And his case shows how the war on terror is felt by relatively few Americans, mostly the full-time and part-time soldiers.

Rivera is one of hundreds of members of the Army's 118,000-member Individual Ready Reserve involuntarily recalled since Sept. 11 to fill key support jobs ranging from clerical workers to truck drivers and combat engineers.

200 from Maryland

Last month, the Army began calling up an additional 5,600 members of the IRR - including up to 200 from Maryland - to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army officials said more of these reservists will be ordered to active duty next year.

Officials with the Army's Human Resources Command in St. Louis said that 596 soldiers from the IRR who have been called up have requested exemptions from duty and 299 have been granted. An additional 165 of these part-time soldiers requested delays in reporting; 140 were approved.

The command had requests for 106 exemptions and 12 delays pending as of early August.

The last time the IRR was activated was during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when 20,000 of them returned to active duty. Before that, it was the Vietnam War that brought this group of reservists back into uniform.

Peters said the current call-up is the result of an active-duty Army that is too small for its missions around the world and is being forced to turn to its part-time soldiers.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he would not be surprised if a growing number of these reservists resist the call-up; many of them are older and settled in civilian careers. The decision to call on thousands in the IRR is also the clearest evidence of strain on the active-duty Army, Segal said.

"I think it's the result of the Army being too small to do what it's being asked to do," he said.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said recently that the call-up is necessary "to meet demanding requirements."

"This is not unusual in time of war," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "And these citizen soldiers are part of the force, and we're calling them into active service just as we did in Desert Storm."

Rivera's life plan did not include the IRR. He wanted to stay in the Army for 20 years and earn a pension.

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