California guardsmen fill shortage of police officers on streets of Iraq
CONVOY SUPPORT CENTER SCANIA, Iraq — Spc. Orlando Mendez was trained as a tank loader for the 1st Battalion, 185th Armored Regiment of the California National Guard.
On a dusty road in southern Iraq, the Anaheim, Calif., resident instead sits behind the wheel of a much smaller Humvee with his M-16 rifle and eyes on the horizon.
“I call this the mini M1 [Abrams tank],” he said, nodding toward the Humvee.
Mendez, like several thousand other guardsmen in Iraq, is doing a job outside his military occupational specialty, military-speak for job classification.
He is serving a military police role, patrolling the streets in a town 100 miles south of Baghdad.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said of his job change. “I don’t think there’s too much for the M1 out here to do.”
Across the guard, soldiers are being tapped for high-demand jobs such as military police and civil affairs to fill Army shortages. As of Oct. 6, there are 173,000 National Guard and Reserve members on active duty, according to the Department of Defense.
The National Guard Bureau reports that more than 4,000 guardsmen are being trained to do policing. They are often taken from combat units such as artillery and armor.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the bureau’s chief, told reporters earlier this year that an estimated one in 10 guardsmen is deployed in a job not part of his original training.
Capt. Gary Bonanno turned the 1-185th headquarters company he commands into an infantry unit in charge of policing.
“A lot of it is a whole new mind-set,” he said. “Instead of assaulting a village, we go out and shake hands and meet people.”
For soldiers, not doing their trained mission can be a letdown. It’s also hard to get a fine-tuned squad to learn a new skill as a team.
“You train for 10 to 15 years doing one thing and you’re here in combat doing another thing. Certainly it affects some people,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Hines, with the 1-185th.
All soldiers have the basic skills necessary for most jobs, he adds: shooting, moving and communicating.
At a remote relay point along the road to Baghdad, artillerymen from the South Carolina National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 178th Field Artillery forgo launching rockets to monitor radios for convoys in trouble.
They use communications in artillery, so the job is not a big stretch.
“We’re used to running radios,” said Spc. Rodney Hammett, a fire direct launcher. It’s just not as much fun as firing rockets, he adds.
Members say the guard is uniquely qualified for the adaptation. Guardsmen have less time to train and so learn quickly, Bonanno said.
They’re also older. The average age in the 1-185th is at least 30, which provides a level of maturity and flexibility a younger soldier might not yet possess.
“Age gives us the patience to handle certain situations without having to manhandle everything,” Hines said.
Guardsmen also have civilian backgrounds to draw on. Staff Sgt. Michael Lattus, a former county sheriff’s deputy, can impart skills to the new military police soldiers working with him in the 1-185th.
Spc. Justin Smith, an infantryman fresh from boot camp, helped the artillerymen from the 3-178th relearn crew-served weapons when he was attached to the unit.
“We’re in Iraq. We’re prepared for anything,” he said.
It’s too early to tell whether the change is taking a toll on retention. Some guardsmen think that a medic, for example, who spent the war in a guard tower might not want to stay in. Others say they like the diversion, but know they soon will return to their normal military functions.
“My guys aren’t mad they’re not rolling around in launchers,” said Capt. Randall Burch with the 3-178th. “I don’t think that affects retention.”
Soldiers might miss their old jobs but the new jobs feature their own rewards, they said.
“I’m not getting on a tank, so why not do something I enjoy?” said Capt. Scott Moreland, currently working on civil-military operations with the 1-185th. “I have a real feeling of accomplishment here.”