Paramilitary: Doing Right By The Reserves


September 4, 2009: The U.S. Army had made peace with its reserve troops. For the first time, ever, the reservists are being treated with a large degree of equality, compared to the active duty troops. Usually, this "equal treatment" is not much of an issue. But on those occasions when reservists are mobilized ("federalized" for the National Guard), they have often found themselves doing the same work as the active duty troops, but not getting the same degree of support, especially reservists with families. This change came about because, for the first time in half a century, the U.S. military has mobilized, and sent into combat, a large portion of its reserve forces.

During World War II, the reserves, especially the National Guard (NG), were mobilized on a large scale. There were a lot of problems. As a result, National Guard units were often maligned as ill prepared, part-time, soldiers. In many cases this was true. But there are also many exceptional reserve units. But the National Guard did have a serious problem in that, unlike the active duty troops, who are all under one command, the individual states have a lot of control over quality control in the units of their state National Guard. The Department of Defense cannot lean on laggard National Guard units too hard, lest there be some political backlash from state officials, and members of that state's congressional delegation.

Reserves were mobilized for the Korean War (1950-3), and this caused major political headaches. Many of those called up were World War II veterans, who thought they would only be mobilized for World War III, not some "police action" in East Asia. Thus when Vietnam began to heat up a decade later, the politicians backed away from mobilizing a lot of reserve units. After Vietnam, it was pointed out that there is no point in having all those reserve units if you don't use them.

The solution was the "Total Force." Many active duty support units (only really needed for a major war) were transferred to the reserves. There were still combat units in the reserves (mostly in the NG), but not as many. The point of the reorganization was to make it impossible to send a lot of active duty units off to combat without having to mobilize the support units to take care of supply, maintenance and, well, "support." This was not needed until the 1990-91 Gulf War, and even then, the Department of Defense called up as few reserve units as possible. There was great reluctance, and foot dragging, in mobilizing any NG combat brigades.

Then came the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Sunni Arab minority reacted badly to losing control of the country, and undertook a suicidal (often literally) terror campaign. This called for a large number of American combat troops (over 150,000) to be there for over five years. Since the army had been much reduced (by about a third) after the Cold War ended (in 1991), the reserves had to be called up big time.

It was at this point that the army found they were not prepared to handle a large number of reservists on active duty at the same time. The bureaucracy that served the army reserves and the NG, were overwhelmed. The families of reservists had many of the same problems that families of active duty troops did, but lacked access to many army programs (that were not designed with large numbers of mobilized reservists in mind).

Thus, over the past five years, there has been a painful, and expensive, overhaul of the way mobilized reservists are treated. The "Total Force" has become more equal in the way active duty and reservist troops are treated, and made the reservists less apprehensive about getting mobilized in the future.




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