VFW Magazine
September 2001
By Alan W. Dowd 

Last year, National Guardsmen and Reservists were dispatched to 64 countries. All told, some 38,000 of them participated in overseas missions. And their activations are up 50 percent in 2001. In any given week, 6,700 of these citizen-soldiers are taken away from their families and jobs to wage war, keep peace, rebuild crumbling nations or teach old adversaries how to reform their armies. 

All of this underscores the significant and indeed crucial role reserve forces play in America’s national defense. As former Secretary of Defense William Cohen conceded late last year, “The U.S. military simply could not undertake a sustained operation anywhere in the world without the Guard and Reserve.” 

Is it too much? Is it even a new phenomenon? The answers may surprise you.

Fast and Furious

Reserve forces and state militia have played an important part in every major overseas engagement since the Mexican War. After making heavy sacrifices in the world wars, some 857,800 reservists were activated for Korea. President Kennedy called up 148,000 reserves during the Berlin Crisis and another 14,000 during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. President Johnson activated 37,600 reserves during the Vietnam War. 

But the role of reservists began to expand significantly with Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when in the twilight hours of the Cold War an immobile active-duty force turned to the National Guard and Reserves (NGR) to carry an even heavier load. By the end of the Gulf War, 238,729 reservists had been activated, the largest call-up of reserve forces since the Korean War. The trend continued under President Clinton, who dispatched 3,680 citizen-soldiers for peacekeeping duty in Haiti, 19,324 to Bosnia and 5,900 to Kosovo. 

What separates these post-Cold War deployments from the post-World War II use of the Guard and Reserves is their frequency. Involuntarily activated only four times between 1945 to 1989, Reservists have been involuntarily activated five times in the past decade and deployed in numerous ad hoc missions during this period. There is little indication that the fast-and-furious pace of deployments will end.

An Endless List

Like a gardener tossing grass seed on new soil, Washington is dispatching active-duty forces and reservists around the globe with seemingly little regard for where they land or where they come from: 

A Patriot battalion from the Alabama Guard tumbles into Southwest Asia; Guardsmen from Alaska land in Belize and Korea; the Georgia Guard trains in Tunisia; Indiana reservists fly to Slovakia ten times in 12 months; artillery specialists from Kansas take up positions in Kosovo; Ohio Guardsmen patrol the U.S.-Mexico border; reservists from Utah are ordered overseas a crippling 50 times in a single year. 

F-16s from the Texas Air Guard fly marathon air-superiority missions in the unfriendly skies over Iraq. As Lt. Col Steve Higgins observes, “We maintain a constant presence. When a plane runs low on fuel, it is immediately replaced by another one.” Painting an even grimmer picture of the no-fly zone, Maj. Ray Lynott from California’s Air Guard adds, “There’s very little public knowledge of what’s going on over there – it’s in fact a war zone.” 

In one 45-day stretch, troops from the Rhode Island 119th MP Company logged 125,000 miles of patrols and convoys. Their main job was to protect two key supply routes between the U.S. base in Hungary and Camp McGovern in Bosnia. In the words of Sgt. John Cervone, a public affairs officer with the Rhode Island Guard, “Both are extremely dangerous tracts, strewn with mines that make any off-road travel impossible.” 

In the nearby Bosnian village of Bratunac, North Carolina’s 30th Infantry Brigade had the grisly and thankless task of guarding a mass grave. “There were piles of bones and skulls,” recalled Spc. Kevin Bryan during his tour. “The place stank. Even your clothes stank.” 

And the list goes on. However, the most notable line in that list is reserved for the Texas Guard’s 49th Armored Division, which not only participated in NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, but commanded it. Under the direction of Gen. Robert Lee Halverson, the 49th was responsible for the American sector around Tuzla, taking over command from the 10th Mountain Division. Active-duty soldiers from the 3rd Armored Division and troops from 11 other nations fell under Halverson’s command, and by every measure it was a resounding success. 

The 49th returned a record 8,000 refugee families to their homes, walked 1.25 million miles of patrols and oversaw key elections in the spring of 2000 -- all without a single U.S. death. “The 49th was asked to perform at a level we’d never been asked to do before,” Halverson concedes. Yet, he proudly adds, “They met all of my expectations and exceeded them.” 

Because of the 49th Division’s successful tour, Halverson believes the Guard and Reserves have earned a newfound respect from active-duty personnel. “It demonstrates to the entire country that the Guard is relevant,” according to Halverson. As one Pentagon official observed, “Decades from now, people will look back on the 49th as a defining moment in the military history of this nation.” Indeed, plans are already underway for Pennsylvania’s 28th Division to follow in the 49th’s footsteps next year. 

Hard Choices

The deployment of reserve forces is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it necessarily irresponsible, according Stephen Duncan, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs under Reagan and the elder Bush. “Increased use of reserve forces when serious crises threaten the nation’s security,” he writes in his book Citizen Soldiers, “is both sound policy and politically inevitable.” That’s because, in Duncan’s view, post-Cold War missions depend upon “tactical airlift, civil affairs, medical, engineering, military police, transportation and similar skills” – specialities suited to reserve components. 

However, Duncan warns that the involuntary activation of reserve forces for operations falling outside America’s vital interests perverts the historic role of “the citizen warrior” and could undermine public support for intervention in serious crises. 

With the number and pace of deployments of all U.S. forces exploding, Washington could be headed toward just such a rude awakening. But to suggest that the National Guard is over-deployed today is more than an indictment of Washington’s use of America’s reserve component -- it’s a tacit indictment of how our leaders use the entire military. As Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., observes, “Deployments have increased some 300 percent, and the military has been decreased by a third -- you can’t keep that up forever.” This pace is demanding both for the citizen-soldier, who has non-military responsibilities that his active-duty counterparts don’t, and for the Regulars, who are doing much more with much less. 

Underscoring his administration’s recognition of this fact, President George W. Bush recently promised to address the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on the Guard by clarifying the mission of the entire military. “And that is this,” he explained, “to be trained and prepared to fight and win war, and therefore, to prevent war from happening in the first place.” A former Guardsman himself, Bush added, “Over-deployments not only affect those on active duty, but also those in the Reserves and Guard.” 

Before scaling back National Guard deployments, Americans will have to make a choice between cutting back on overseas commitments altogether or substantially increasing the size of the active-duty force. The first choice runs the risk of upsetting the delicate balance we have forged in Korea, Kuwait, Kosovo and a dozen other flashpoints, and it could cost American lives. The second runs the risk of evaporating the hard-earned surplus, and it is guaranteed to cost American dollars. 

The longer we delay that decision, the heavier the burden for America’s men and women in uniform – regardless of whether they are Reservists or Regulars.

*Cover Story