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National Guard Readiness: Iraq, Kansas, and Future Disasters

It took two days after the Kansas tornadoes nearly wiped Greensburg, Kansas off the map before a significant number of military vehicles arrived, most streaming in from Wichita about 100 miles away.  As Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr., put it:

"We should have had National Guard troops there right after the tornado hit, securing the place, pulling up debris, to make sure that if there was still life, people could have been saved. The response time was too slow, and it’s becoming a trend. We saw this after Katrina, and it’s like history repeating itself."

Due to deployments in Iraq, the National Guard in Kansas, as in too many other states, was operating with just 40 to 50 percent of its normal numbers of vehicles and heavy machinery.

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, echoed the concerns of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius on the effect of the Iraq war on National Guard readiness and equipment availability:

"We have the same problem. We have had a significant decrease in equipment traditionally afforded our National Guard, and it’s occasioned by the fact that it’s been sent to the Middle East and Iraq."

Even if additional equipment can be brought to the scene, the lack of equipment means that local National Guard may not have had a chance to train on it.  Back in February, long before the tornadoes, Gov. Sebelius had noted, “The Guard cannot train on equipment they do not have. And in a state like Kansas, where tornadoes, floods, blizzards and wildfires can seemingly happen all at once, we need our Guardsmen to be as prepared as possible.”?

As this Dispatch will highlight, the anger by officials in Kansas just highlights the ongoing problem that the deployment in Iraq has caused for states planning for disaster response -- and the broader ways state legislatures have been demanding more responsible actions by Washington, D.C.

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The Toll of Iraq on National Guard Readiness

 

With 368,560 Army National Guard soldiers mobilized to Iraq between 9/11 and March 2007, readiness for response to domestic needs was bound to erode. 

Before the latest Kansas disaster, two reports earlier this year-- one by the Government Accountability Office and another by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves-- both detailed the ways Iraq was undermining the National Guard's capability to meet domestic needs.

Evaluating these reports, former Nixon Defense Secretary Melvin Laird wrote this last week that the National Guard "lacks the necessary equipment and other resources necessary to fulfill the assigned tasks" and there has been little concern by White House officials for the "diminution of readiness as they return to their states and local communities from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Lack of equipment is the first key problem:

  • Nearly 90% of the Army National Guard has less than half the equipment they need to respond to a national crisis.
  • Almost 9 out of 10 Army National Guard units that are not serving in Iraq or Afghanistan have less than half the equipment they need to respond to a domestic crisis.
  • The Air Reserve is experiencing a similar shortfall. The Air Guard and the Air Reserve have flown over 80% of the supply missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The equipment is badly in need of overhaul or replacement.

Returning troops have repeatedly had to leave vital equipment back in Iraq when they returned to the United States.

Reacting to this problem, the National Governors Association signed a letter last year to President Bush asking for the immediate re-equipping of Guard units sent overseas.

Recruitment & Attrition of Returning National Guard:  Beyond the loss of physical capital, state National Guard units are suffering from losses of human capital, as it both becomes harder to recruit new members of the Guard and returning Guard members suffer the after-effects of deployment in Iraq.

As the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves detailed, the National Guard is finding it increasingly hard to recruit experienced people with prior military service.  Back in 1997, two-thirds of Army National Guard recruits had previous service experience, but that has dropped to just one out of three recruits:

"The Department’s stop-loss policies, the desire of service members leaving active duty not to participate and be subject to future deployments, and the smaller size of the overall force to draw from have resulted in fewer prior service enlistments in all reserve components."

Grimly, the Commission found that even additional pay and benefits doesn't seem to be making a difference: "current indicators cast considerable doubt on the future sustainability of recruiting and retention, even if financial incentives continue to increase."

And returning National Guard members are unlikely to close the gap.  The Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health chaired by Navy Surgeon General Donald Arthur, recently issued an urgent warning that "nearly 50 percent of National Guard members are returning with signs of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and other disorders after returning from deployment." 

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States Call for an End to Iraq Escalation

 

State government leaders are increasingly demanding an end to this unsustainable situation. 

During the 2007 legislative session, 29 states have introduced resolutions or circulated letters by legislators calling on the federal government to stop the escalation in Iraq.  Supported by a national campaign launched by Progressive States Network, and supported by groups like MoveOn.org, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI) and the Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL), seventeen states have sent letters to Congress or approved an anti-Iraq resolution in at least one chamber.

The problems facing the National Guard in the states have been a focus of many of these resolutions, with language such as the following in many of them:

"This proposed escalation will further extend National Guard tours in Iraq, that the costs to the states of the call-up of National Guard members for deployment in Iraq have been significant, as reckoned in lost lives, combat injuries and psychic trauma, disruption of family life, financial hardship for individuals, families and businesses, interruption of careers and damage to the fabric of civic life in our communities."

Challenging Federal Preemption of State Authority:   State leaders have also been dismayed that due to the war and the fallout from Katrina, they have de facto lost control of the National Guard even for domestic state emergencies.  Language in the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill allows the White House to deploy Guard troops without permission from a state's governor. 

The co-chairs of the Homeland Security and Domestic Preparedness Task Force of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) wrote a recent letter in support of US Senate 513, a federal bill which would repeal that expanded federal authority.  The state leaders emphasized that "in nearly half the states, the National Guard fills the role of state emergency management agency...state authority must be strengthened rather than co-opted by federal decree."

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Taking Care of Returning Members of National Guard

 

In 2005, many states passed laws to cover any lost pay for state employees serving overseas.  Some employers did the same, although forty-one percent of reservists reported that they lost money when called to active duty, according to a survey of reservists by the Government Accountability Office.

In 2005, New Mexico approved a law buying life insurance policy for every member of the National Guard, sparking introduction of similar laws in other states.

More broadly, bills like California's AB 296 would study how the federal government is failing to provide benefits for returning National Guard veterans and what changes are needed to preserve a strong, skilled Guard for times of disaster.

Fighting Discrimination against National Guard members:     An emerging critical issue is how to deal with an upsurge in discrimination against hiring members of the National Guard, as employers become unwilling to hire them, knowing they may disappear for indeterminate periods.  As the Military Times highlighted earlier this year, what may be a majority of employers are expressing an unwillingness to hire Guard members-- a phenomena that, once recognized by state citizens, will make them even less likely to join.

While the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects veterans from employment discrimination once they return from service, many state leaders worry that enforcement is not strong enough to deter employers and so they are enacting additional protections.  For example:

  • Some states, like Illinois, added service in the National Guard or reserves to its state Human Rights anti-discrimination law.
  • Virginia this year enacted SB 1309, which not only strengthens the right to reemployment under state law but tightens the legal presumption that discrimination has occurred against a National Guard member in initial hiring unless an employer can demonstrate otherwise.
  • Wisconsin introduced a bill this year, AB 70, to not only strengthen private sector protection for Guard members but to also give them stronger preferential treatment when applying for state and local government jobs to give them an alternative if they do suffer discrimination.

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Conclusion

 

The reality is that our National Guard is in crisis.  There are shortages of equipment, shortages of Guard members at home as they are deployed overseas, and, most dangerously, a shortage of trained new recruits to staff the National Guard in the future.  The Iraq War has left thousands of American soldiers dead on the battlefield, but even more are returning to their states mentally scarred as well. 

State leaders are demanding in every way they can that the federal government end this folly and bring National Guard members home again.

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