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To The Commander-in-Chief: Reading is a good start in leading







September 21, 2003
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Boots on the Ground, Family Back Home
By MARK L. KIMMEY


L HILLAH, Iraq
The Army's decision to keep its Reserve forces in Iraq on duty for a full
year from their arrival may have profound consequences for both the Army and the
war in Iraq. While the Army will gain increased flexibility with its "boots on
the ground," the long deployments may demoralize reservists. When
mobilization and demobilization are included, 12 months on duty in Iraq will mean a 14-
to 16-month separation from family and career for reservists.
"Fair doesn't mean equal," a battalion commander once told me. But the
message to reservists is unmistakable: the Army no longer takes into account
sacrifices made to maintain two careers and lives. Many reservists will watch the
regular soldiers with whom they came to Iraq go home before they do. The Army may
not care about the disparity between the way the forces are treated, but
those of us in the Reserve do.
Everyone knows that the regular and Reserve units of the Army are not equal.
Regulars are better trained, better equipped and expected to execute their
missions more professionally. That's the way it should be: it's their job — their
only job.
Reservists have jobs in the civilian world. For a reservist, every day in
uniform is a day away from what might be (or might have been) a promising career.
Despite the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, which
prohibits discrimination against an employee because of military service, we
understand that when a dispute with an employer arises, the reservist always
loses — even if the employer is forced to take us back. What's more, many of us
don't serve long enough to qualify for a military pension — and even if we
do, it's not enough to compensate for opportunities missed while we were
deployed.
Hardships on Reserve families have increased with longer and more frequent
deployments. Reservists don't always have ready access to a military base and
its support programs. Left to fend for themselves, Reserve families are becoming
more vocal about their unhappiness with the situation. Politicians may not be
listening to their complaints, but you can bet we husbands and wives overseas
are hearing their pain.
The Army is fond of bragging about the advantages of the all-volunteer force.
But reservists are volunteers, too. We sign up for the Reserve when we leave
the Army because we want to continue to serve with people we respect. We sign
up because we want to serve our country. We sign up for extra income or
educational benefits. Some of us sign up to be part of history, for the possibility
of adventure. But nobody signs up for occupation duty, especially occupation
of a country that never officially surrendered.
It is not a question of performing our duty. I have served as a peacekeeper
in the Balkans, a job that most of us found hard but acceptable. Even though
most active-duty soldiers were deployed to Bosnia or Kosovo on 180-day
assignments — 90 days shorter than us reservists — my unit didn't suffer from a flood
of resignations after Balkan duty. In fact, we laughed that reservists were
providing more continuity there than the regulars.
The problem in Iraq is that the Army doesn't seem to know what to do with us.
The Army has only one civil affairs battalion on active duty. Its job is to
get in fast, stabilize the situation and then hand responsibilities to a
mobilized Reserve unit as quickly as possible.
That's where my Reserve civil affairs brigade comes in. I am a communications
officer in a unit filled with higher-ranking officers. Why so many senior
soldiers in a civil affairs brigade? Because our knowledge, skills and
experience, gained in the civilian world, make us valuable in rebuilding countries like
Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the case of my brigade, we've had nothing to do for almost a month. We
were originally deployed in support of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, but
when it went south to Kuwait at the end of August to begin its journey home,
we were left to cool our heels. Our three battalions were dispersed on
far-flung assignments. One battalion was sent to Bosnia on a scheduled peacekeeping
rotation; another was split, with half reinforcing the 101st Air Assault
Division. The remaining soldiers are filling holes in my own unit.
So here in a makeshift base camp, we have a brigade headquarters with few
reservists to command and no regular Army commander to support. The feeling
throughout the ranks is that we are being held in place while someone tries to
think of something for us to do. We've been assured that new orders will be
published "any day now," but we've heard that before.
The advantage of experienced reservists to a unit is immeasurable. But here
in Iraq, I am hearing more soldiers talk about calling it quits when they
return to the States. Even though some soldiers are only four or five years from
qualifying for retirement pay and benefits, they're getting out. The constant
deployments are difficult for families and careers, they say, and waiting around
for retirement benefits is no longer worth it.
The evidence I see in other units around me is the same: the United States
Army is about to see a mass exodus from its Reserve.
For me, the length of time I spend in Iraq is less important than getting the
job done right. I don't want my son to have to come here in five years
because we messed it up. But if the Army continues its policy of year-plus tours for
its Reserve forces in Iraq and elsewhere, it will soon find those ranks empty.
The question the Army faces is simple: will more frequent, extended
deployments dry up the Reserve pool? We need an answer soon. If the Reserve continue to
be misused, soldiers will vote with their feet when they get home. By then it
will be too late for the Army to figure out what went wrong.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that we need to be fair to
reservists, their families and their employers. If reservists are forced to spend
too much time on active duty, he said, "we're going to end up losing them, and
we can't afford to lose them."