Guard to replace troops in La.

New rotation to reduce number of soldiers there from 22,000 to 15,000 this week


WASHINGTON -- The National Guard is rotating thousands of soldiers into Louisiana to replace those who initially responded to Hurricane Katrina and expects to send additional part-time soldiers from around the country into the state through December, if necessary.

There are about 22,000 Guard members in Louisiana; that number is expected drop to about 15,000 when the rotation of new troops wraps up this week, said Brig. Gen. Frank Grass, deputy director of the Army National Guard. The soldiers will spend three weeks to a month on the ground, providing security, helping with reconstruction and rebuilding efforts, and distributing food.

Grass said in an interview that the number of Guard troops from outside Louisiana is expected to rapidly decrease over the next two months - to 7,700 in late October; 3,700 in November; and finally 1,300 in December. The final rotation is expected to remain until the end of the year.

Congress has expressed concern that the Guard has been stretched too thin, largely because of the number of troops deployed in Iraq. Some questioned whether Louisiana had trouble responding to Katrina because a combat brigade from the state, roughly 3,000 soldiers, was in Iraq when the storm hit. Those soldiers have since returned home.

"Right now we risk breaking our force because of the repeated deployments of our Army and of our Marines, particularly the Army National Guard and the Reserve Forces," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said recently.

But Grass and other Guard officials said that, with about 78,000 Guard personnel deployed around the world, there are still more than 300,000 soldiers and airmen available for duty.

Asked whether the continued Gulf Coast relief efforts would spread the Guard too thin, Grass said, "At this point no if we go with the drawdown plan."

The experience level of the Guard troops deploying to Louisiana reflects the high number of overseas deployments. Grass said about 80 percent are veterans of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While some states are ordering units to Louisiana, others, including Maryland, are using volunteers.

Last week Maryland sent an additional 130 troops from the 175th Infantry Battalion to Louisiana for a month. In mid-September, 96 soldiers from the Maryland Guard's 3rd Brigade arrived in the Gulf Coast to conduct security patrols and distribute ice and water from Gulfport, Miss., to New Orleans. They are expected to return home at week's end.

The 15,000 Guard troops in the current rotation include about 5,700 from Louisiana who have been on duty since Katrina struck Aug. 29 and flooded most of New Orleans. Ohio is sending the largest number of troops into Louisiana, about 840 soldiers, followed by Kentucky with 635 and Washington state with 600.

The incoming troops are heavy on military police, engineering, transportation, aviation, medical and infantry units.

Mississippi has seen a rapid decline in the number of Guard troops - from over 12,000 in mid-September to the current level of about 4,000, most of whom are from the state. In Texas, there are no out-of-state Guard units providing assistance in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

Meanwhile, the Guard is embarking on new recruiting advertisements using still photographs and film footage of its soldiers helping Katrina and Rita evacuees, officials said.

"Katrina and Rita brought [community service] back to the forefront," said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, the Guard's deputy recruiting and retention chief. "We're starting to press home service to the country as a very noble thing."

Besides full-page newspaper advertisements, the Guard plans on running short recruiting films in 2,200 movie theaters throughout December.

For the recruiting year that ended Saturday, the Guard is expected to be more than 13,000 recruits short of its annual recruiting goal of 63,000. That means the Guard will come in with 333,000 soldiers, instead of its anticipated strength of 350,000.

But Jones said the recent recruiting numbers are encouraging and may reflect the widespread coverage of thousands of National Guard soldiers assisting in the hurricane relief efforts.

In the first three weeks of September, the Guard recruited 2,799, an increase of 622 over the same period last year, said Jones. He said that was achieved despite the fact that the Guard recruiting effort in the Gulf Coast was interrupted by the hurricane.

"It's starting to grow again," he said.

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