The Bush administration has deployed four of every five members of the Army National Guard since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, taking a toll not just on manpower but also on the equipment of state-based militias, according to a new congressional report.
Of the 350,000 troops in the Army National Guard, about 280,000 of them, or 80 percent, have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since 2001 in the largest deployment of the Guard since World War II. At least 70,000 of these citizen soldiers, on whom states rely in hurricanes and other local disasters, currently are on federal missions, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report .
Under the U.S. Constitution, each state's National Guard unit is controlled by the governor in time of peace but can be called up for federal duty by the president. There are two branches of the National Guard: Air and Army.
The report highlighted a rising concern for state Guard units: equipment shortages back home.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become common practice for National Guard troops to leave their gear -- from guns to bulldozers -- for the soldiers who stay behind. The report quoted statistics that back up complaints by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) and others that equipment transfers are hurting states' ability to respond to disasters and to recruit and train new Guard troops.
As of July, the Army National Guard had transferred more than 101,000 pieces of equipment to troops sent overseas, said the report, which was presented at an Oct. 20 congressional hearing on government reform. As a partial tally, the GAO estimated 64,000 pieces already left abroad were worth more than $1.2 billion.
The practice of leaving equipment behind is exhausting the Guard's inventory of some critical items, such as radios and generators. As a result, the report noted, "non-deployed Guard units now have only about one-third of the equipment they need for overseas missions, which hampers their ability to prepare for future missions and conduct domestic operations."
Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard, said equipment transfers have left more than half of his unit's equipment broken or out of reach. "Unquestionably, we have felt those effects in the state of Iowa," he said.
Among the missing pieces were guns and trucks, he said. To compensate, Iowa's Guard was designating certain pieces of equipment for training, so units could come to one base and share the scarce resources, Hapgood said.
But he said he was concerned about training in the future, especially with the limited amount of weapons.
'There is absolutely no substitute for hands-on training," he said. "There is one thing to look at a 240 Bravo (a machine gun) in a book. It's another to take it in your hands and take it apart, learn the operation intimately and firing it."
His concern has been shared at Guard bases nationwide.
New Jersey officials told the GAO that they didn't have chemical protective suits and nerve agent antidotes to deal with a terrorist attack.
In Louisiana, National Guard officials said they lacked essential pieces of equipment, including heavy machinery, to respond to Hurricane Katrina. A report detailing those concerns will be included in an upcoming report on the disaster.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) told Congress last week that his state had experienced the same problems, such as losing access to airplanes, generators and tents to units abroad. He emphasized the need for this equipment to be replaced as soon as possible.
"I recognize that it sometimes is appropriate to leave equipment, weapons systems, and protective gear in country rather than returning it with the unit when it redeploys to the United States and to Pennsylvania," Rendell said. "But, it's vitally important that once our units return to Pennsylvania, they be resupplied with the equipment they need to perform their missions and that the replacement equipment they receive be of the same quantity and quality as the equipment that stayed behind in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Still, at least one state has been spared enormous losses of equipment. In Minnesota, state Guard spokesman Col. Denny Shields said they have lost only a "bulldozer, some old armored personnel carriers and that's it." At least for now, he said.
"We feel very fortunate," Shields said.
Yet the report concluded Minnesota seems to be an exception, and officials at the National Guard Bureau said replacing equipment was a top priority.
As for troop strength, spokesman Jack Harrison said the National Guard was in no immediate danger, despite missing recruiting goals for at least the last two years. At the end of the last fiscal year, the Army National Guard sought 63,000 soldiers and ended up with slightly more than 50,000 -- about 80 percent of its goal.
Cushioning these drops, the Guard is retaining soldiers and airmen at a rate of more than 96 percent, Harrison said. And recruitment should improve, he said. "We are all familiar with the recruitment problems we have suffered as of late," he said. "I think we are turning a corner."