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Congressional leaders gave President Bush the green light three years ago to invade Iraq based on what they now know was faulty intelligence.

On March 8, many of those same leaders met with a special commission they created to study how Guard and Reserve forces should be organized, deployed and compensated for their expanded role in the war on terrorism and to handle the stress of an open-ended occupation of Iraq.

This time, lawmakers were knocking rather than green-lighting administration plans. Republicans and Democrats asked the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves to examine closely Defense Department plans for restructuring Army National Guard brigades. They also challenged the department’s resistance to improving reserve benefits, and decisions made on critical Guard issues without consulting state governors.

The 13-member CNGR is chaired by Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps Reserve major general who served 14 years as staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Other prominent commissioners include retired Army Gen. John M. Keane, former Army vice chief of staff; William L. Ball, former Navy secretary; and Larry K. Eckles, former chief of staff of the Nebraska Army National Guard. The commission Web site is: www.cngr.gov.

The commission has a year to complete a comprehensive review and deliver final recommendations to Congress. But it also will make some preliminary recommendations within 90 days, by June 1, in time to influence some key reserve component decisions in the fiscal 2007 budget.

Like most witnesses, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the armed services subcommittee on military personnel, praised the performance Guard and reserve personnel deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But he cautioned that reserve forces are at risk if the pace of deployments isn’t slowed and if benefits aren’t enhanced.

Graham asked that the commission’s interim report comment on whether a new premium-based health benefit for drilling reservists will help re-enlistments and whether allowing reserve retirement before age 60 could also “have a positive effect” and, at the same time, be affordable.

Graham favors legislation that would begin reserve retired pay one year sooner for every two years a reservist serves beyond a typical 20-year career. Thus a 22-year reserve career would allow retirement at age 59 and a 30-year career would mean full benefits at 55.

“If we don’t look at doing something like that, we are going to lose people at the 20-year point in droves,” Graham warned, “because families are getting stressed to the breaking point in the Guard and reserves.”

Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., co-chairmen of the Senate’s 85-member National Guard Caucus, said administration plans to cut Guard force structure, as unveiled with the fiscal 2007 budget, were made without “substantive input” from National Guard leaders.

“We are seeing policy recommendations from the departments of the Army, the Air Force and the secretary of defense that fly in the face of logic,” Bond said. The Guard itself, he said, is “treated as a lesser partner.”

Bond asked the commission to study proposed legislation from the caucus to give the Guard “more bureaucratic muscle so it does not continue to be pushed around in policy and budget debates within the Pentagon.”

One change would make the National Guard chief a four-star officer and member of the Joint Chiefs. Another would provide the National Guard with its own procurement budget, separate from the services, in an arrangement similar to that of the Special Forces Command, Bond said.

The administration would cut the number of Army Guard brigades from 34 to 28. It argues that only 15 current brigades are “enhanced,” that is fully manned, equipped and trained. The plan would lower force structure but more of the 28 brigades would be enhanced.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked the commission to assess the wisdom of that plan and whether proposed budgets would even allow these “full up” brigades. The House Armed Services Committee conducted its own defense review in recent months and determined that a reduction in Guard forces was unwarranted.

“We are involved, whether we like it or not, in nation building. We swore off nation building after Somalia but are involved in real nation building in Iraq, and sometimes you have to do that,” Hunter said.

If that’s the mission, Hunter said, Guard brigades are the “special forces … of nation building” and needed now more than ever.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a former governor, said Guard equipment is being destroyed or left behind for follow-on forces in Iraq, creating shortages within states that defense budgets aren’t addressing. Nebraska is short 1,700 pieces of equipment including Humvees, trucks and radios, he said.

Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House military personnel subcommittee, sounded another alarm. He noted that under current mobilization authority, Guard and reserve members can be called up involuntarily for a cumulative period of no more than two years. Many current reserve and Guard members have reached or soon will reach that two-year limit and will be ineligible for further call up unless they volunteer.

“That’s going to present significant policy and operational challenges,” McHugh said. He asked the commission to recommend “policy and statutory options” for Congress and the administration to consider.

Of 11 lawmakers who testified, only Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked commissioners not to go “overboard” on its recommendations, particularly if they would add to rising military health care costs or narrow what Warner argues are reasonable benefit disparities between active and drilling reserve forces.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit www.militaryupdate.com

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