Reservists dismayed by Iraq tour extension, but general says it's final
September 11, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Reserve troops won’t be home for the holidays. And many will barely make it home for July Fourth, 2004.
As word that Reserve troops will spend one year on the ground in Iraq filters down to remote bases and police stations around Baghdad, many troops are registering shock.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about since yesterday,” Sgt. Charlie Spence said Tuesday afternoon while on duty at a police station in downtown Baghdad. Part of the 210th Military Police Company, a National Guard unit from Murphy, N.C., Spence said, “It’s good to hear a definite date. It’s not the date we wanted to hear.”
“It’s going to be an awful long time” he added.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq says the change is final.
“There has been some confusion, OK,” Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said in discussing unit rotations during an interview. “The confusion comes when you start talking to Reserve components and you say ‘one year,’” Sanchez said.
Activation time lines, whatever the length, have traditionally included the time it took reservists to mobilize and train for a mission, as well as the often lengthy demobilization process, he said.
“What has happened within this week is that it has been made one year on the ground, which is a significant change for the Reserve component. They have to mobilize, [spend] one year on the ground, and then [demobilize] after leaving the theater.”
The decision, according to military officials, leaves reservists in Iraq for a full year — plus, in many cases, months more in mobilization, train up and demobilization time.
Stars and Stripes interviewed more than a dozen soldiers. All of them — officers and enlisted troops alike — agreed the Pentagon decision was a tough blow.
“We were looking at being in theater for nine months. So this adds another 90 days,” said Lt. Col. Fred Sellers, a reservist with the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Abilene, Texas. “I hate it. And I know that just because it’s written down doesn’t mean it could change.”
Traditionally, reservists said, they’ve served six months on the ground of 270 days total deployment under the Presidential Selective Reserve Call-up, including pre- and post-deployment training. And that was what most expected, not a full year on the ground — and in case of the 210th, more than 16 months away from home.
His MP unit was notified in February that it was bound for Iraq. They then spent two weeks preparing for the deployment, Spence said.
“For two weeks, we barely got home,” he said.
Then they went to Fort Dix, N.J., on March 18. Three months later, with only a few days home leave, the component was finally on its way to the Middle East. After a brief stay in Kuwait, they arrived in Iraq on June 13.
Under the guidelines, Spence and his fellow National Guardsmen won’t leave Iraq until June 2004, and probably not complete demobilization until July or later, making for a possible 16-month deployment. That has a profound effect on him and his men, said Staff Sgt Andy Lynn, of the 210th.
“I’m losing money every day I’m here,” said Lynn, a paramedic in civilian life. His wife had to cut her hours working as an office assistant to take care of their children.
Most of the soldiers in Lynn’s unit are in their late 30s, many of them men who own businesses, mostly contractors. “They all told me they’re losing customers to competitors,” Lynn said. “They’re starting from scratch when they get home.”
One senior NCO was sanguine about the additional time.
“The net extension of three months. What’s another three months?” said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Fisher, 361st Psychological Operations Company, based in Seattle.
But the impact on communities across America is profound, said Fisher, a reservist and a civilian police officer.
“I’m not happy. My family is not pleased. And you have a community working with one less cop,” he said.
Extending Reserve force deployments has a ripple effect because a large percentage of guardsmen and reservists are community-service employees — firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel, doctors and nurses, Fisher said.
His platoon lost a comrade, Staff Sgt. Billy Franklin, on Aug. 20, while on patrol in one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods, Lynn said. Franklin, who left behind two children, had a departure date in July, but was held due to stop-loss.
Now, his command is telling the unit they’re not eligible for rest and recreation break because they’re below 95 percent strength at 100 of 180 men, or about 65 percent, Lynn added.
All this, Lynn said, is going to make it difficult to attract and keep Reserve forces.
“That’s the pink elephant sitting in the living room that no one talks about,” Lynn said.