Guard fills the gaps between war, peace

Duty: With the Army stretched thin, America's citizen-soldiers are needed as never before - to fight insurgents and help rebuild Iraq.

October 19, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DIYALA PROVINCE, Iraq - Under a bright moon, three Bradley Fighting Vehicles churn along a highway that slices through a parchment-like stretch near the Iranian border. A platoon from the Army National Guard's 30th Brigade Combat Team is searching for an arms cache.

Riding in the 33-ton armored vehicle is like being trapped inside a blender grinding ice. After an hour of crunching and whirring, the Bradley stops, its back door whines open and the soldiers spill out into the dusty night air. A collection of one-story houses and sheep pens glows under a spotlight and echoes with the yelps and snarls of dogs.

Lt. Christian Smith, a 23-year-old platoon leader from Morehead City, N.C., and his Iraqi translator, nicknamed "Mike" and wearing a baseball cap and scarf to shield his identity, approach two men who have been awakened by the noise.

Smith is polite but firm, asking the pair about fighters slipping across the border and the whereabouts of the owner of a nearby house in which rocket-propelled grenades are thought to be hidden. The Iraqis, both wearing long gowns, seem confused and nervous, telling the translator that the man who rents the house is from Baghdad and is not around.

"If you have a key, you can prevent me from busting it open," Smith tells them. But by the time the key arrives, the door has been broken down by soldiers, who find only building materials. Smith spots a teenager walking on a roof and then jumping to the ground near a television that illuminates a dirt courtyard. Through the translator, he presses one of the Iraqis, a gray-haired village elder.

"I want to know what he was fiddling with?" Smith hollers. "There's no reason to be afraid. We're only here to help you."

The man says the teen was fixing a TV antenna, then changes his story, saying the boy was spreading out freshly picked dates. Smith argues with him. A jumble of angry words erupts in two languages. An elderly woman joins in, then theatrically spits on the ground as she is hustled away by other villagers.

A soldier climbs to the roof and finds dates. No weapons. Smith apologizes for the intrusion. The village elder trots after him and makes a request.

"He said we have many children here and a school with no teacher," Mike says. Smith pulls out a notebook and jots a few lines.

"We've spent $1.35 million building new schools. We're trying to get young Iraqis to teach," Smith tells the elder in his country drawl. "I'm going to make a note and tell my boss. I will push the issue of trying to get a teacher for your school."

The elder thanks him as the soldiers climb back into their armored sanctuaries, which drive through the night toward the next village.

Filling the ranks

It was a typical patrol for Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of the 120th Infantry, an element of a North Carolina-based brigade of some 4,200 part-time soldiers called to active duty. It is one of three National Guard brigades in Iraq. Like all U.S. soldiers here, they live in a netherworld between war and peace - venturing out from a heavily guarded base to search for weapons, fight an insurgency and help rebuild the ravaged country.

The National Guard, a draft-era haven during the Vietnam War and an afterthought during much of the Cold War, has emerged as a major force in Iraq. The Guard's three combat brigades here - from North Carolina, Arkansas and Washington state - will expand to seven in the rotation of troops that is to begin later this year, bringing in soldiers from Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and New York.

The current Guard contingent in Iraq, about 32,000 soldiers, will swell to 42,000 next year, officials said, a sizable part of the estimated 140,000 U.S. troops on the ground.

"The National Guard's never been needed more than it's needed today," says Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, a one-time Baltimore teacher and now the top officer of the National Guard who recently visited troops in Iraq. "We always had to fight for relevance in years past."

With an active-duty Army that has decreased from 18 divisions during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to 10 divisions today, the Pentagon has to call on reservists in numbers not seen since World War II.

"We couldn't do it without the reserves," says Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, whose command includes these Guard soldiers from North Carolina.

Iraq duty is causing strain in the Guard, which last month failed to meet its 56,000 annual recruiting goal by 7,000 soldiers. Much of the problem was caused by the "stop loss" order issued by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that prevents active-duty soldiers and reservists from leaving the service immediately when their enlistment ends. Soldiers completing active-duty service have historically been prime targets for Guard recruiters.

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