UnGuarded

by Laura Onstot

Staff Sgt. Daniel Dierickx completed three tours of duty in Iraq with the Air National Guard by the age of 23. Back home in Klamath, Ore., he is working toward a degree in aeronautical science. He continues training for the National Guard, but the equipment he has to use seems better suited for a tour in Korea or Vietnam.

Instead of training with the heavier body armor worn by troops today in the Middle East, Dierickx wears a flak vest from Vietnam. Instead of modern air radar systems, he uses a radar with components dating back to the early 1950s.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s War on Terror has taken a steady toll on the forces and supplies of the National Guard. That means Guard members like Dierickx are likely to find themselves in combat using equipment they are unfamiliar with.

Increasingly, the newer equipment is kept in the combat zones — particularly Iraq and Afghan-istan — leaving the outdated equipment at home for training the troops. Though the problem plagues the whole country, some Western states have been hit especially hard: New Mexico is the most ill-equipped state in the country, and soldiers in Colorado had to go out of state to train for their tour in Iraq because of the lack of equipment, extending their time away from home by six months.

“The National Guard today, I’m sorry to say, is not a fully ready force,” Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum testified before a U.S. Senate committee on April 11.

There are about 456,000 troops in the Army and Air National Guards. Unlike their counterparts in the standing Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, Guard units serve two masters. They can be called up by governors to provide defense and respond to crises, be it filling water tanks in the high deserts of New Mexico or feeding cattle after a blizzard in Colorado. They also respond to major natural disasters — hurricanes on the coast, wildfires in the West, earthquakes in California, or a volcanic eruption up in Washington state.

The Guard’s other responsibility is to serve the federal government by supporting missions in foreign countries or along the U.S.-Mexico border. Increasingly, Guard troops spend most of their time on the federal component of their mission.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, about 180,000 Guard troops have served in Iraq or Afghanistan; 479 of them have died in those countries.

Blum insisted that no one is sent into combat without adequate preparation, but recent reports on Guard readiness and equipment shortages tell another story.

A January 2007 report by the federal Government Accountability Office found that all 50 states are short the amount of equipment needed for missions at home and abroad. New Mexico has the largest shortfall at 66.2 percent. Colorado and Georgia are the best-equipped in the nation, but still fall short by almost 35 percent.

“The National Guard is being forced to survive on Army hand-me-downs,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, said in an April news release. “This is hard in peacetime and impossible when we are at war. The National Guard is being treated as second-class soldiers, and that is simply wrong.”

The size of the Guard is increasing at the rate of about 1,000 recruits a month. But while recruiting is up, the Army National Guard’s fiscal year 2006 report shows that the overall readiness of the expanding units has decreased by nearly 50 percent since July 2002, including a 45 percent reduction in equipment on hand.

And as more troops are called upon to support the war, the equipment available to train them continues to thin out. “We should be using exactly the equipment we’ll be using in theater,” Blum said.

But they’re not.

Tim Manning of Gov. Richardson’s Office of Homeland Security said that as the president calls up the Guard, the states are left short on people and supplies.

“Most of what they have that is in good service tends to get taken and sent to active duty units,” he said. Arizona Army National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Aguirre said that with most emergencies, resource-sharing agreements between states help alleviate any shortages.

But if a disaster affects several states, Aguirre said, there would be problems. That happened on a large scale in 2002 — one of the worst wildfire seasons in a half-century. On April 22, a fire started in Utah that burned until July. In the meantime, another fire started in Wyoming and a third in Colorado. By the end of the season, 2.8 million acres and over 130 homes had burned throughout the West.

Maj. Phillip Osterli, a spokesman for the National Guard in Washing-ton state, said he has concerns about exceptionally large disasters such as major earthquakes or another Mount St. Helens eruption.

“Then we would face some serious shortfalls in equipment,” he said.

In early May, after a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan., Gov. Kathleen Sebelius blamed slow National Guard aid and clean-up efforts on equipment and vehicle shortages as a result of the war effort.

And as if competing state and international missions weren’t enough, the Guard has other responsibilities, including border security. By the end of September 2006, 5,252 personnel had been deployed to the Southwestern border.

At current funding levels, the Air and Army National Guard units are almost $40 billion short of what they need to be properly trained and equipped, said Blum. The deficiencies are felt across the board; radios, helicopters, trucks and tanks are inadequate or antiquated. “You name it, we are short,” Blum said.

The Senate included $1 billion for the National Guard in the Iraq war funding bill passed April 26, but President Bush vetoed the bill because it would have established a timeline for withdrawing troops, beginning Oct. 1. That leaves the Guard without enough cash to get the equipment it needs here at home. And soldiers like Dierickx will continue to train for modern urban warfare on equipment resembling the props in old reruns of M*A*S*H*.

The author is a graduate student and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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