Reservists toil away in 'the forgotten war'
March 23, 2003
They call themselves the Forgotten Bastards of Balikatan.
A group of highly educated soldiers, they’ve languished in the Philippines as part of an obscure part of the war on terror.
While active-duty soldiers come and go on 90-day rotations, the reservists in this unit, from Upland, Calif., have lived for more than 200 days in a small, dusty base repairing decades of decay on a frontier most Americans have ignored.
“We are the forgotten war, the forgotten front,” said Army Maj. John Lim, a member of the Delta Detachment, 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, 351st Civil Affairs Command.
These soldiers are civil affairs reservists, soldiers who left behind technical and skilled jobs for a one- or two-year stint in the jungle. Their families miss them, and so do their civilian employers who lose out for however long they’re away.
“In many cases, these employers are taken for granted,” said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Gutierrez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the group. “Besides being away from the family and not seeing your loved ones for so long, your employer also takes a big hit.”
The system is a necessary evil. Civil affairs reservists are highly specialized in fields the Army could not afford to maintain, said Maj. Bill Autrey, who leads the team.
Lim is a satellite engineer for Boeing; Gutierrez, a contracts administrator for a software firm.
“We all have specialized skills. We bring a little of the skill base that active duty has trouble maintaining,” Autrey said.
“You will find a wide variety of skills in a CA unit, from teachers, lawyers, businessmen, doctors and factory workers,” said Maj. John Bestul, a stateside civil affairs reservist who runs a Web site dedicated to their mission.
“One of the strengths of CA reservists is that they understand what it is to be a civilian, both at home and at work. They can relate to the people that they are working with,” he added.
Since the Army can’t mobilize reservists as easily as active-duty soldiers, when they’re needed, they’re usually called up for a while.
“Typically they don’t like to mobilize reservists for a short period of time,” Autrey said.
As part of their Philippine mission, the team faces peril every day.
Each time they meet with contractors, survey a project or help the sick, they don body armor, an equipment vest, radio system, M-4 rifle and M-9 pistol and a load of ammunition, Autrey said.
“The places that do need the most help are the most dangerous,” said Army Maj. Jeff J. D’Antonio, civil affairs team chief for the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group in the Philippines, who worked with the group in Basilan and now works from Manila.
The team’s mission is part of the global war on terror, and classified as the second front in Operation Enduring Freedom, after Afghanistan. But it’s overshadowed by tensions in Iraq. The result, the group says, is they feel forgotten by America.
“My only regret is that the American public has forgotten about this Philippine operation,” Lim said. “I hope that we are not relegated to some obscure footnote in the back of the history books when the chapter on the Global War on Terrorism is written.”
And, team members say, they’ve fallen through the Army’s administrative cracks.
Their local commanders are trying to get them time off, but the group hasn’t had a day of liberty in eight months. They’re also stuck with leftover supplies, the wrong weapons and the oldest equipment, Gutierrez said.
The pressures make the job even more taxing. As Special Forces, they already face stiff standards.
Lim said the group must meet Special Operations standards: “We have to run faster, swim farther, carry heavier rucksacks, and shoot more accurately than the average U.S. Army soldier.”
Their problems are echoed throughout the reservist ranks.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has asked his department to address the pressure on reservists, which has escalated for decades.
Since the Persian Gulf War, U.S. leaders have cut back on active-duty forces, relying more on the reservists to fill the gaps. As of March 3, the Army called up 127,487 reservists and guardsmen, and the total armed forces 176,553.
The Defense Department is concerned about the effect repeated call-ups have on reservists, their families and employers, said Thomas F. Hall, assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs last month, according to an American Forces Press Service.
“We cannot have a situation where we call you, as a guardsman or reservist, every year for three or four years. You won’t want to stay in the Guard and Reserve, and employers might worry about employing you,” Hall said.
Under Rumsfeld’s orders, leaders are looking at ways to ease the reservists’ burden.
Despite the dirt and grime, high security risks and long separation from family and home, the group in the southern Philippines is thankful for the experience.
“One of the unique things about Civil Affairs, especially when it comes to humanitarian activities, is that you can see that you are providing real, tangible help to people of the country you are operating in,” Bestul said.
The team members from the 426th have a similar sentiment.
“I have to leave my family, job, and friends behind. But at the same time, I’m proud to serve my country, I enjoy what I do for the Army, and I’m helping others to have a better future,” Gutierrez said.
“My biggest satisfaction is to have taken care of more than 18,000 people. And even though a Medcap is just a temporary solution to their health problems, it felt good to see these people so happy seeing a doctor and getting some medicines.”