Marines to call reserves to duty

Up to 2,500 at a time will be activated for service in Afghanistan and Iraq, Corps says

August 23, 2006|By JULIAN E. BARNES | JULIAN E. BARNES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps said yesterday that it would begin calling thousands of Marines back to active-duty service on an involuntary basis to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan - the latest sign that American armed forces are under strain and a potential signal of the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war among young veterans.

Marine commanders will call up formerly active-duty service members now classified as reservists to fill needed jobs in combat zones. The call-ups will begin in several months, summoning up to 2,500 reservists at a time to serve for a year or more.

The military has had to scramble to meet the manpower requirements of the Iraq war, in the face of a continuing insurgency and growing civil strife.

Last month, the yearlong deployment of the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade was extended by four months in order to provide extra troops to deal with escalating sectarian violence in Baghdad.

For much of the conflict, the Army has had to use "stop-loss orders," which keep soldiers in their units even after their active-duty commitment is complete, and involuntarily call-ups of reservists to supplement their forces.

Both the call-ups and the stop-loss orders have been criticized as a "back-door draft" and are unpopular with service members, many of whom believe they have already done their part.

"You can send Marines back for a third or fourth time, but you have to understand you are destroying their lives," said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It is not what they intended the all-volunteer military to look like."

Marines typically enlist for eight years. Most serve four years on active duty, then enter the Reserves, either as part of a unit or in the Individual Ready Reserves.

The Ready Reserves, now 59,000 strong, was designed to be a pool of manpower that the armed services could draw on in a time of national emergency. But the Iraq war has forced the Army, and now the Marines, to rely on the Ready Reserves to fill holes in the combat force.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the call-up of the Marine Ready Reserves was a sign of the wear and tear inflicted by Iraq on the armed services, a stress that could hurt the military in the months and years to come.

"The right way to address the issue is to increase the size of the military so you do not have to rely on the call-up of the individual Ready Reserves," Reed said.

Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written about what he calls a military manpower crisis, argued that the involuntary call-ups are the latest sign that a larger ground force is needed.

"It is one of an avalanche of symptoms that the ground forces are overstretched by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," Kagan said. "This administration needs to understand this is not a short-term problem and it really needs a systemic fix in the size of the ground forces."

Although the Marines have for the most part avoided forcing reservists to serve in Iraq against their will, as the war as dragged on, volunteers have been harder to come by.

"We have been tracking our volunteer numbers for the last two years; if you tracked it on a timeline or a chart, you would see it going down," said Col. Guy A. Stratton, the head of the Marine Corps' Manpower Mobilization Plans section, who briefed reporters yesterday on the plans.

There are 138,000 troops now serving in Iraq. There are about 24,100 active-duty Marines serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, although the bulk of that force is in Iraq's Anbar Province.

Marine Corps tours in Iraq, most of which are about seven months, are shorter than the Army's year-long tours. But Marines return to combat more frequently, with as little as five or six months in the United States between rotations.

The grueling schedule means some Marines have served three tours in Iraq.

The Marines last did an involuntary call-up of members of their Individual Ready Reserves before the initial invasion of Iraq. Although 2,658 involuntary orders were issued at the time, far fewer Marines ended up serving in Iraq.

Although it is possible that someone who had served in Iraq just a year before could be selected to return, Stratton said that, when deciding whom to mobilize, the Corps will select reservists with fewer combat tours or who have served overseas less recently.

The Marines estimate they are about 1,200 people short of the needed manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan. With training taking six months, and deployments an average of six months more, the Marines need the authority to call up 2,500 people at a time. Marines called from the Reserves could serve a maximum of two years, although most tours are expected to last a year to 18 months. Stratton said the authority to involuntarily call up the Ready Reserves will last indefinitely.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Army has mobilized 5,000 soldiers from its Ready Reserves. The bulk of those have been part of involuntary call-ups begun in mid-2004.

Stratton said Marine reservists will be given five months' notice that they are being activated. He said there would be a generous system that would allow Marines called up from the Ready Reserves to defer service or, in some cases, be exempted.

But Rieckhoff said that yanking Marines out of their civilian lives would be disruptive to service members and their families:

"The bottom line is everyone is exhausted. It may be legal, but it is kind of like the difference between a contract and a promise. Overall we are eroding the promise made to our military."

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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