National Guard Should Protect People, Not Oil

Hurricane Katrina blew apart President Bush's rickety arguments about how invading Iraq would make us safe.

We don't know Hurricane Katrina's death toll, or how many Americans might have lived had the thousands of National Guard troops trained to help in the wake of hurricanes and floods not been protecting oil in the desert.

But we know 35 percent of Louisiana's and 40 percent of Mississippi's National Guard troops were in Iraq while their towns were leveled. National Guard officers repeatedly had warned officials about the catastrophic impact of having so many Guardsmen deployed in the event of a major natural disaster.

More soldiers and equipment are now stateside. But hundreds of high-water vehicles, humvees, refuelers and generators the Gulf Coast desperately needs remain overseas. Not only Gulf Coast residents are in jeopardy; the Iraq war endangers the nation.

More than a third of the U.S. soldiers based in Iraq belong to the Reserves or National Guard. Weekend warriors intended to supplement full-time active duty troops now fight for 14 months on average. But most are still treated like part-timers, and prepped and outfitted for combat accordingly. New equipment goes to the Army while Guardsmen and Reservists get hand-me-downs. This bodes badly for part-time soldiers who have become a major fighting force in Iraq.

August was the deadliest month for citizen soldiers. Five Pennsylvania Guardsmen died when the second-class humvee they were in was blown up. They had requested permission to use some of the 12 brand new, fully up-armored vehicles issued to a nearby active duty unit. The request was denied. The trucks stood idle when the Guardsmen died.

A total of 46 National Guard and Reserve soldiers were killed in August, more than half the 83 troop deaths. The disproportionately high -- and rising -- casualty rates of citizen soldiers are part of a trend. Pentagon statistics released at the end of 2004 showed losses sustained by Army National Guard soldiers in Iraq were 35 percent higher than that of regular enlisted. The elevated mortality rate of citizen soldiers is unparalleled. Of the 58,209 U.S. deaths in Vietnam, 94 were Guardsmen, and none were killed in the Persian Gulf War, USA Today has reported.

Long, hazardous duty is one reason why Army National Guard and Army Reserve recruitment numbers are off by 23 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In the first half of 2005, the Seattle Army Reserve office missed its target of about 100 recruits by 75 percent. Oregon recruitment is down 40 percent. Several battalions have lost more than half their members. One Reserve unit saw 70 percent of its members leave within a few months of coming home.

Half the soldiers leaving active duty service have traditionally joined the Guard, but since that likely means a quick trip back to Iraq, the number has dropped to about 35 percent. With so many first responders in Iraq, we have fewer first responders -- fire, police and emergency medical technicians -- in our communities.

While the Guard and Reserve are particularly hard hit, our entire country is suffering from the Iraq war. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-N.Y., recently noted that more than 16,000 U.S. troops have been killed or wounded in Iraq, and that the government has spent more than $200 billion on the war so far, saying, "The war has been a tremendous failure by both measures." He was announcing his support for legislation to require that U.S. troops begin their withdrawal from Iraq by October 2006.

It's time we add Homeland Security to the growing list of casualties of the war in Iraq.

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