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Bush, Congress Need to Help Stressed Reserves

Citizen soldiers — reservists and National Guard members — expect to get called to active service in wartime. It’s what they’ve signed up and trained for. [IMGCAP(1)]

But thousands have been called to active duty more than once and for extended periods in recent years, causing Members of Congress to wonder how long this can last.

Somewhere between a third and 40 percent of reservists suffer pay cuts when they go on active duty. Many lose health insurance for their families, and some get as little as a day’s notice before having to leave home.

At a hearing last week of the House Armed Services subcommittee on total force, Chairman John McHugh (R-N.Y.) said he worries that “if we don’t do something in Washington to smooth out the growing height of the bumps [reservists] face, we risk losing the force.”

Five reservists and guard personnel who testified at the hearing were overwhelmingly uncomplaining, although they reported on misuse of their skills, lack of advice to their families on medical benefits, multiple call-ups and extensions of their duty time and going into debt during their service.

Pentagon officials point out that recruitment and retention rates in the reserves and National Guard have not suffered despite nine mobilizations over the past 13 years, including the present call-up of nearly 220,000 for the Iraq war, about 20 percent of all reservists.

But Steve Anderson, legislative director for the Reserve Officers Association, told me that while the Pentagon’s attitude is “‘the more you use ’em, the more they like it,’ we think that if you lose money, your business goes bankrupt and you lose your health insurance, it makes table talk at home pretty dicey.”

“I’m not worried about the situation now, but about the next call-up and the next one.”

President Bush ran in 2000 complaining about President Bill Clinton’s “overstretching” U.S. forces with deployments in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

But Bush has kept forces in Kosovo and embarked on a war in Afghanistan, post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism duty at home and now a war in Iraq — all without expanding the number of active-duty forces and reserves.

In addition, 15 state governors currently have National Guard units called up for duty in response to terror warnings from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of McHugh’s subcommittee, told me “it’s a very difficult situation with no end in sight. We’re overusing people, deploying them in extreme cycles. We force people into poverty, force small businesses to close, divide families. We’re using up people’s capacity for patriotism.”

Tauscher said she and Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, favor a 10 percent expansion of the armed forces and a “good look” at certain military jobs for which call-ups are frequent.

Another solution would be significant use by the Pentagon of the “call to service” short-term enlistment program sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and signed into law last year.

The measure was designed to attract college-bound young people into the service who are unwilling to make a four-year commitment, but would be willing to serve for 18 months on active duty, followed by several years in the reserves or civilian agencies such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

McCain and Bayh envisioned a first-year program of 20,000 short-term enlistment opportunities, eventually rising to 90,000, but McCain’s staff anticipates that the Bush administration will start small, with only 2,000 slots.

Yet another solution to the military manpower shortage would be a return to the draft, as proposed by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) but adamantly opposed by the Bush administration.

Meantime, Congress is acting to “smooth out some of the bumps” for reservists. The Senate just voted to double their family separation allowance from $125 a month to $250.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced a bill requiring the federal government to make up any pay differential when federal employees who are reservists get called to active service.

Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced bills to ensure that reservists’ families can continue to be covered by health insurance when they’re called up.

The Pentagon says that, prior to the Iraq war, reservists over the past 13 years stood a 65 percent chance of being called to active duty once, but only a 4 percent chance for two call-ups and a 1 percent chance for three.

Still, that amounts to 48,000 people called up twice and 12,000 three times — and the Pentagon acknowledges that certain “high-demand, low-density” units are called up often.

They include special forces, military police, civil affairs, transportation and combat engineers. “Some of these people are called up so often they meet themselves coming in and going out the front door,” Anderson said.

And a significant number of reservists are police officers, firefighters and paramedics in civilian life. “What happens if there’s a terrorist attack and the National Guard unit you need to deal with it is deployed in Kosovo?” Tauscher asked.

Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld promised the Reserve Officers Association in June that he’d look into the reserve-overstretch problem. As soon as this war is over, and before the next, he ought to do that.

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