More than 130 U.S. and British troops have been killed in accidents and hostile fire in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations on 1 May. And some U.S. soldiers have expressed restiveness at being on active duty there since the war began in March -- and for many months before then. Now more members of the U.S. military's National Guard and reserves may have to be sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other foreign postings. RFE/RL recently visited a training center near Washington, D.C., and spoke to three members of the National Guard who say they accept this possibility and are, for the most part, ready to serve.
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland; 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are now about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and although the war there is only about five months old, many have been away from their homes for more than a year.
These soldiers will need to be "rotated" out of combat duty and replaced by fresh troops. And many of these troops will come from America's military reserves.
The most prominent reserve in the United States is the National Guard. The National Guard is divided among the 50 states, with each state unit under the control of individual state governors. Each unit is equipped by the federal government and is subject to being called into service, or "activated," by either the state or the federal government.
Most often, National Guard units respond to natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, or fires. Sometimes, they are called in to quell civil disturbances. But in wartime, they can be activated to become part of the regular U.S. Army.
During peacetime, most members of the National Guard are part-time soldiers -- known as "weekend warriors." They serve at military bases on some weekends and undergo stricter training for two weeks during the summer. A smaller number are full-time members of the National Guard who supervise training and keep the units operating when part-time members are not on base.
There is a slim possibility that those in the National Guard and reserves will see real combat, and all members know when they sign up that they could be activated in wartime. And now, more than at any other time since the Vietnam War, that possibility is looking increasingly likely.
Lieutenant William Hummer, a young flight-operations officer and helicopter pilot, helps train other pilots and maintains his own piloting skills in the National Guard. He told RFE/RL: "A soldier never prays for war, but you do what you have to do. I've gone through a lot of training as a pilot, and to get that opportunity [to be deployed] would be the culmination of all my training. So in that respect, I would look forward to it, but I don't look forward to leaving my family."
Hummer was one of the National Guard members interviewed recently by RFE/RL about the possibility they will be sent by the U.S. government to Iraq or other conflict zones. The interviews took place at the William C. Baxter Army Aviation Support Facility, a National Guard training center in Aberdeen, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
All the National Guard members say they are prepared for whatever the army wants them to do. Hummer said he always knew he might someday see combat. After all, he notes, his father was in the army and prepared his son for the realities of military life.
Of the 1.4 million members in the U.S. armed forces, 1.2 million -- roughly 45 percent -- are in the National Guard or reserves. And fully one-quarter of them, or about 300,000 National Guard soldiers and reservists, have been put on active duty since the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. Some are serving in the Balkans, some in South Korea. But many are also doing combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Combat in Afghanistan has been sporadic since the Taliban was routed in late 2001. In Iraq, however, more than 60 U.S. and British troops have been killed by hostile fire since President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat on 1 May. Another 70 have been killed in accidents or other noncombat situations.
Members of the National Guard are acutely aware their lives of perpetual training could change abruptly to a tour of duty in Iraq, a country whose people are, at best, suspicious of U.S. forces and, at worst, hostile to them.
Like Hummer, the military is also part of the family for Sergeant First Class Iris Cruz-Story, who directs air traffic in the National Guard. Cruz-Story said her husband once served in the U.S. Army and she understood from the day she signed up for the National Guard that danger was always a possibility.
Still, Cruz-Story said, she is not yet prepared to go to war and hopes that a few weeks' notice will give her the time she needs to make the appropriate mental and emotional adjustments. "I wouldn't say right now, [that I'm] mentally [prepared for combat]. I think with advance notice, you work up to that point to where, 'OK, yes, I'm ready to go,'" she said.
According to Cruz-Story, her husband may help her with that preparation. "My husband has a military background, so he's very supportive with my military career -- very supportive," she said.
Perhaps as important as the support of a loved one in preparing for the rigors of combat is the camaraderie of colleagues. Hummer, who was an accountant in his civilian life, said he joined the National Guard as a part-timer. He said he was intrigued by the balance of civilian and military life. But that soon changed, he said.
"I liked the idea of a dual career. I started out in accounting when I graduated from college, and I liked the idea of serving my country part time, but also having a full-time civilian professional career. And it just happened to evolve into a full-time [military] career. I didn't realize how much I would love it," he said.
Cruz-Story was also an accountant. She said she joined the National Guard because of its physical challenges and the support of colleagues.
Specialist Jamal Jackson is a former civilian police officer who describes his duties in the National Guard as those of a supply sergeant. Jackson, too, said joining the military has been a tradition in his family. Jackson said he was also attracted by the military's offer to pay for a college education that he otherwise would not have been able to afford.
Like Hummer and Cruz-Story, Jackson said he feels at home among his fellow National Guard members. "I've enjoyed it. The training's been pretty intensive. There's also a camaraderie. There's just so many benefits to it. It's almost like another family. You just feel like you're part of something bigger than the everyday world," he said.
Despite their concerns about combat, all three acknowledge they will probably enjoy the adventure if they are activated to serve in Iraq. Jackson said his duties probably will stay much the same if he is activated: ordering and dispensing supplies. But Cruz-Story said the bulk of her clerical work would be assigned to others while she would concentrate on directing air traffic. As for Hummer, he would be able to focus exclusively on his great passion: flying.