Guard called to border

120 Maryland members will head for Arizona starting in August

July 28, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

The Maryland National Guard will send 120 of its soldiers to Arizona next month to aid President Bush's effort to shore up the nation's border with Mexico, officials confirmed yesterday.

The first 60 soldiers are scheduled to fly to Arizona on Aug. 1, said Maj. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. The others will follow about four days later.

The mission, expected to last about two months, marks the first time that Maryland has sent its part-time soldiers - all volunteers - to participate in Operation Jump Start.

"We're not out there by ourselves," Kohler said. "Customs and Border Patrol will deal with anyone coming across the border; our job is to assist them, manning observation posts."

The two-year effort seeks to stem the tide of illegal border crossings by sending in a force of 6,000 soldiers, whose presence would allow Border Patrol agents to do a better job.

"We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that," Bush said in a nationally televised address in May.

Experts continue to debate the appropriateness of the guard's border deployment in light of manpower strain on the citizen-soldier force since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't see it as a problem in terms of the guard's capability; they can handle the mission," said Christine E. Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The problem is, can you continue to find the number of soldiers you need? Over time, are people going to become less than enamored with the idea of these kinds of deployments?"

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for manpower issues in the Reagan administration, was more blunt.

"It's really just for show," Korb said. "The president was trying to do something. But it does have some potential downsides for the Guard."

The deployment will be used in lieu of annual training for some soldiers, he said. "So what are they going to be doing down there? Will it be their military specialty? If not, they should get their normal training too because they still need it for other missions," Korb said.

Guard officials insist that the mission is not only appropriate but part of the force's mission to aid states in times of crisis.

"This is something we wanted to do and something we're confident that we can sustain," said Kristine Munn, a spokeswoman for the National Guard Bureau.

She added that Guard recruitment has reached some of its highest numbers since the end of the draft.

"They feel very good about that service. They're very proud of it," said Philip Coyle, the former assistant secretary of defense for testing and evaluation from 1994 to 2001 and now with the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Still, he said, "the strain on their families from these extended deployments is not always what they expected. Their spouses might say, `Hey, this really isn't worth it.'"

Today, the border operation has about 5,000 guardsmen in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Officials expect the size of the force to swell to 6,000 by next month, a figure that will be sustained for about two years.

"It will give the border patrol the time to train new agents," Munn said.

Soldiers have provided surveillance and reconnaissance, Spanish-speaking translators, air and ground transportation as well as road repair and fence building.

From Maryland, the largest number of soldiers will be drawn from the state's 1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry of the 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based in Annapolis, according to Kohler. Their specialty, he said, is surveillance and reconnaissance.

The Maryland soldiers are expected to return Sept. 26.

Today, part-time soldiers and airmen from Maryland are in service across the world, serving in intelligence missions in Iraq, as Special Forces in Afghanistan and working in detainee security in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In May, 130 members of the Olney-based Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment returned from a year of combat operations near Baghdad and in western Iraq. It was the first combat deployment for the Guard unit since the Normandy invasion during World War II.

Despite the call-up of some 700 soldiers and airmen from the Maryland National Guard, more than 6,000 remain available to local missions in the state if needed, Kohler said.

Those leaving Maryland for the Southwest border won't be the first guardsmen to tackle border issues.

As part of 132,000 guardsmen activated to the southwest border in June 1916 by President Wilson, soldiers from Maryland served in Eagle Pass, Texas.

"Fighting heat, storms, dust and - most memorably - boredom, the Maryland Guardsmen pitched their tents on the banks of the Rio Grande for seven months," wrote Joseph M. Balkoski in a history of the Maryland National Guard.

But they impressed their comrades in uniform every day, according to Balkoski.

"The Regulars discovered that the much-maligned Guardsmen were actually solid and willing soldiers."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

Staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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