A different Guard role in Iraq war, U.S. politics

Election 2004

September 14, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry address the National Guard convention in Las Vegas this week, they will find a vastly different part-time soldier than they remember from the Vietnam War era.

Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- some 51,500 soldiers and airmen -- are members of the National Guard. Those numbers are expected to rise with the next rotation of troops. Only 7,000 Guard soldiers deployed to Vietnam, a tiny percentage of the more than 2 million U.S. troops who served there.

Moreover, the National Guard has been thrust to the fore in the presidential campaign, with charges by Kerry that the "stop-loss" policy that prevents Army soldiers, including Guard troops, from leaving right before or after deployment overseas amounts to a "backdoor draft." There also are allegations that Bush failed to fulfill his duties as a member of the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Unlike Vietnam, when the draft provided a steady stream of soldiers, today's all-volunteer force and smaller active-duty Army -- coupled with the Sept. 11 attacks -- means the Guard is playing a more demanding role at home and abroad than it has since World War II.

"What we have seen is a fundamental shift in the role of the National Guard," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "I think the Guard, like the Army, has to be prepared to be in this for the long haul."

Until recent years, the 450,000 members of the Army Guard and Air National Guard generally would perform a support role -- as truck drivers, medical personnel, military police and tanker pilots -- for the active-duty force overseas. But now, combat brigades, such as the 30th Heavy Separate Brigade (Armor) of the North Carolina National Guard, serve in Iraq alongside active-duty soldiers and Marines. Thousands of part-time soldiers are providing security at bases in the United States and overseas.

The Guard, facing shifting demands, is retraining hundreds of artillerymen as military police, a specialty greatly needed in Iraq. One Maryland Guard unit, the 115th MP Battalion from Salisbury and Parkville, has deployed three times since the 9/11 attacks, first to the Pentagon and Fort Stewart, Ga., then to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and finally to Iraq for nearly a year of security duty at Baghdad's airport.

During the Vietnam War, the National Guard was seen by many as a haven from the draft and the jungles of Southeast Asia. Some questions being raised now about Bush, such as the alleged use of family connections to get into the Guard, dogged 1988 Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who served in the Indiana Guard during Vietnam.

Bush, who is to speak today at the association's annual convention in Las Vegas, has tried to borrow the mantle of the current Guard soldier, many of whom are patrolling in hazardous alleyways of urban Iraq, when discussing his service as a stateside fighter pilot. "I would be careful not to denigrate the Guard," Bush said this year. "There are a lot of really fine people who have served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq."

Kerry, who is to address the Guard convention Thursday, has talked of the overstretched Guard forces to criticize Bush's Iraq policy. "We need to more rapidly train Iraqi police and military to take over the job of protecting their country," Kerry told the American Legion Convention in Nashville, Tenn., two weeks ago, pledging to "end the backdoor draft of National Guard and reservists" if elected.

Meanwhile, some Kerry supporters, including Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff, urged Bush to use the Guard convention to answer questions about his military record.

"Until we know the truth about President Bush's service -- how he got into the Guard, how and why he neglected his duty, how and why he was not disciplined, this issue will hang around and smell up the place," McPeak said.

The White House has denied that Bush used family connections to obtain a slot in the Guard, insisting that he met his military responsibilities and received an honorable discharge.

Guard families will hold a news conference in Las Vegas hours before Bush's speech to criticize his Iraq policy.

"Despite the administration's rhetoric about supporting the troops, the families will tell stories of National Guard soldiers sent into a war that should never have happened, extended beyond their expected return date and denied proper training and equipment," said a news release from Military Families Speak Out, a coalition of 1,500 families whose relatives are serving in Iraq or have been killed or wounded there.

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