Guards and Reserves choosing not to re-enlist
The military is asking more of Guard and Reserve troops.
WASHINGTON -- Sgt. Vic Blazier and his wife, Capt. Carla Blazier, were sent to war in 2003, leaving an infant and a toddler with a grandfather who died while the couple served in Iraq.
The ex-Army reservists from Marion, Ohio, had become civilian soldiers out of patriotism. But the sacrifice proved overwhelming.
After a decade of service, she resigned her commission as an officer in late 2004 after a year in Iraq. He returned home on hardship leave in late 2003 after his father died. Last year he passed up re-enlistment and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The Blaziers are part of what military experts see as a pattern as the Pentagon seeks to increase the burden on the Army's two reserve components, the Reserve and National Guard. Torn between family and the call to duty, many are taking a hard look at military commitment and choosing family when re-enlistment time arrives.
"I do a lot of volunteering. When you miss two birthdays, you try to make up for them," said Carla Blazier, 35, who joined the Reserves in 1993 as a software expert on a career path, but now puts family first. "I try to stay very involved and active in my children's life because I missed that year."
Those deciding whether to remain in the Guard and Reserve must take into account the possibility that they'd have to serve longer and more frequently on active duty than they do now. Under current mobilization policies, part-time troops can be called on to serve involuntarily on active duty for no more than 24 months during a five-year period. Army officials want the Pentagon to lift those restrictions so that National Guard and Reserve troops can be pressed into service more often; specifics remain to be worked out.
National Guard and Reserve troops called for service in Iraq usually spend about six months training, then a year in Iraq.
"We're not close to burnout, but we're at an important point and we need to monitor the situation very closely," said Christine E. Wormuth of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who authored a study on the future of the Guard and Reserves. "There is a recognition that you can't keep using the reserve component the way we've used it in the past three years."
Carla Blazier said that about half of the 120 enlisted soldiers in her company didn't re-enlist or just stopped coming to drills.
It's the same story in Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexico border. The 100 soldiers in the 812th Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit, are still fresh from a deployment in Iraq. Roughly 25 percent to 35 percent are considering getting out, said Sgt. Maj. William S. Patterson, the unit administrator.
Some are eager to rekindle civilian jobs, threatened by their long absences. Others want to complete their education, said Patterson, a Vietnam veteran.
"These people want to get on track with their lives," he said.
A twice-deployed member of the unit with a wife and two sons, Staff Sgt. Noel Cortez decided that it was time to "take a break" from the Reserves after seeing the hardship that his absences imposed on his family.
"I wasn't there for a whole year and I missed a whole lot," said Cortez, who plans to attend college in January and become a nurse. "I don't want to go through it again and I don't want them to go through it again."
The trend, military analysts said, certainly isn't a wholesale mutiny from the Reserve and Guard.
Officials at Fort Worth Naval Air Station, the nation's largest joint reserve base, see no evidence of manpower erosion or sagging morale among the more than 20 major units at the base, despite multiple deployments involving more than 4,000 guardsmen and reservists.
"I don't know anybody who says, 'This is just too much for me that I've got to leave,"' said Col. Kevin Pottinger, the commander of the 301st Fighter Wing. "My problem is, quite honestly, I've got people who want to go [overseas] and I'm trying to hold people back."
Still, the nation's 522,000-member Army Reserve and National Guard force shows signs of strain from repeated assignments. The assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, Thomas F. Hall, describes the balancing act as a "three-legged stool": the soldier, the family, the civilian employer.
"If any of those legs fall off," he said, "the stool tilts over."
A significant number of reservists and guardsmen are choosing "Fort Living Room," the buzz phrase for civilian life.
The Army Reserve fell about 15 percent short of its recruitment goal in 2005. It hired more recruiters, added to its advertising budget, eased age restrictions and added bonuses, and in 2006 it was just slightly short of the goal: It added 25,378 recruits and had a goal of 25,500.