Guardsmen feeling tension, strain of more combat duty
One member said the war could have an effect on recruitment.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
John Hanson, a city building inspector in Northern California, already served one tour in Iraq with his National Guard unit. If called, he said he was prepared to go back: "But I'm not going to lie and say I'm happy about it."
Francis Shaw, a medical technician in Long Beach, Calif., worries about the toll another deployment would take on his family, his civilian job and his 55-year-old body.
So far, more than 7,000 members of the California National Guard have been deployed for 12- to 18-month tours in Iraq, the first use of the state militia in overseas combat since the Korean War.
Until last week, under National Guard policy, most of these soldiers were exempt from another activation for at least two years.
But faced with the "surge" of forces proposed by President Bush, senior military officials have announced a change in the rules that would let them recall some state units to serve an unprecedented second tour.
National Guard headquarters in Washington announced that one large state unit already in Iraq, the 1st Brigade Combat Team from Minnesota, with 4,000 troops, had been asked to stay an additional four months as part of the proposed increase in forces.
Pentagon officials said California units, such as the 1st Battalion, 185th Armored Regiment in San Bernardino, which served in Iraq in 2004-05, might be asked to go again.
Interviewed last week, veterans of the 1-185th were generally resigned to a possible second tour, although they said it would put strains on their families and civilian careers.
Not what they were told
For many, the Pentagon proposal represents a dramatic departure from what recruiters told them when they enlisted.
"If I were 20 years younger and had a better background in the infantry, I wouldn't mind going. But as old as I am and with my family situation, it's going to be difficult," said Shaw, who works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach.
Many National Guard soldiers are older than their regular military counterparts. In addition to his tour in Iraq as a team leader outside Baghdad and on the Kuwait border, Shaw served two tours in the Vietnam War with the Navy. He has three older children from an earlier marriage and a 3-year-old son with his wife, Cindy, a former Navy nurse.
"It would be more disappointing for my wife than it would be for me," said Shaw, who trims his hair military-style and keeps in good physical condition. "There is the possibility of our son losing a father, and the question of how another long tour would affect him."
Like many soldiers, Shaw said he suffered from post-traumatic stress after his return from combat, which caused him to seek counseling. "Even now, I get anxious when I hear loud noises or when I'm in the mall or other crowded places," he said. "When somebody slams a door, I jump."
Even the first round of combat was a surprise to many who enlisted in the National Guard before the Sept. 11 attacks. Largely left out of the Vietnam War, when draftees formed the main fighting force, the National Guard primarily had been used for state emergencies. In California, that meant forest fires, prison riots and floods.
When the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003, the Pentagon had no plans to send National Guard units. But as regular military forces were exhausted, military leaders turned increasingly to state militias.
At one point in 2005, more than 5,000 members of the California National Guard were in Iraq. At least 22 California guardsmen have been killed there
Effect of policy change
Because of the policy limiting active duty for guardsmen to two years in a five-year enlistment, the number of California guardsmen in Iraq recently had dropped to 747.
Under the changed policy, however, nearly all California guardsmen who previously served in Iraq would be eligible to go again.
Many in the National Guard are former regular military veterans who joined to qualify for full military retirement. A lot of younger enlistees joined for education benefits. Few bargained for the extended tours of active duty, including combat.
Sgt. 1st Class John Hanson, 44, worries that the changes will diminish the Guard's traditional role as a responder to state emergencies and affect its ability to recruit.
Hanson, who joined the National Guard in 1998, served in Iraq and then five months later was sent to New Orleans to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He said another tour in Iraq would pose yet another hardship for his family.
"I do have another life outside Sergeant Hanson," he said. "I have a 16-year-old son who I'd like to see stay on the right track."
Hanson also worries that civilian careers will be damaged by another tour. His employer, the small coastal city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., was accommodating when he was in Iraq, making up the difference in his salary and maintaining his benefits.
But he said other soldiers in his unit were not so fortunate. "A lot of guys got grief because of their being in the Guard," Hanson said. "The law says that nobody can be fired, but several guys were laid off. It really hurt those who had their own business."
Curtis Lewis, 44, a history teacher at Poway High School in San Diego County, Calif., who served in Iraq as a sergeant in the California National Guard, said concern for his students was one of the main reasons he decided not to re-enlist when he returned from overseas in 2005.
"I have 160 students for whom I feel a strong obligation," said Lewis, interviewed in his classroom. "I also have four children of my own. When I was gone the first time, it was especially hard on them and my wife.
"War is a young man's game," he said.