Military Warns That U.S. Forces Are Stretched Thin
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
As President Bush weighs his options for Iraq, there are new appeals to send more troops into Baghdad. Retired General Jack Keene, a former Army vice chief of staff, is among those calling for a surge in troops. He spoke today on CBS's "Face the Nation."
(Soundbite of "Face the Nation")
General JACK KEENE (U.S. Army, Retired): It's a fundamental change in the mission. People are focusing on the surge of the troops, but the essence of it is we changed the mission to the security of the people in Baghdad.
ELLIOTT: But the Army chief of staff warns that the demand for deployed combat brigades is stretching the Army to its breaking point. General Peter Schoomaker testified this past week before the Commission on National Guard and Reserves.
General PETER SCHOOMAKER (U.S. Army): The nation must begin by acknowledging that these are increasingly dangerous times and realize that we are actually closer to the beginning than we are the end of the long war.
ELLIOTT: Schoomaker wants more active duty soldiers and the ability to deploy Reserve and National Guards more frequently. The Guard Commission has also heard testimony from commanders who say current restrictions on tours of duty leave them ill-equipped. So they resort to what the military calls cross leveling, pulling in troops from other guard and reserve units to cobble together a fighting company. This troubles Commission Chair Arnold Punaro.
General ARNOLD PUNARO (Commission on National Guard and Reserves): I would not take a unit and command that unit in combat if it was put together like a patchwork quilt. It's an issue of we're sending troops into harm's way and we're not sending them in terms of the best organization, training and equipping and best-led, and that's an obligation we have to all our Marines and soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardmen.
ELLIOTT: I spoke with General Punaro this past week.
General Schoomaker called for a bigger force this week when he testified before your panel, saying the Army is on a dangerous path and needs greater access to Reservists. I'd like to ask you if I could about the timing of this call for a larger force. It's coming at a time when a man who had been trying to streamline the military is departing as secretary of defense. Is this in any way positioning to get the attention of the new secretary, Robert Gates?
Gen. PUNARO: This hearing with General Schoomaker was set up long before anyone knew that Secretary Rumsfeld would be departing, and second, General Schoomaker, he's a warrior's warrior. He's a soldier's soldier. And he's assessing what his capabilities are and he's saying what he believes he needs to do the job.
ELLIOTT: Has this been something that military and Guard officials have been bringing up with the Department of Defense?
Gen. PUNARO: Yes, they have. I think it's been something that the military uniformed leadership has been increasingly concerned about, increasingly worried about. One Marine battalion commander that testified on the record said the cross-leveling policy was so detrimental to the units, he called it an evil policy on the record.
And what General Schoomaker is suggesting is, if I can't get at the Guard and Reserve as much as I need them when I need them, then maybe I need to have a little bit more on the active duty side.
ELLIOTT: One of the things he told you all is, quote, "we're closer to the beginning than to the end of this fight." What do you think that means?
Gen. PUNARO: The chief of the service feels a real keen obligation to make sure they're doing the things and making the decisions in buying the weapons that that service is gonna need five and 10 years from now. I think all the military is very concerned as they look down the road and they really don't see any let-up in this intense operational nature. Even if we were to get out of Iraq in a limited fashion or a large fashion or anything in between, they see the nature of the long as requiring these very high operational commitments as far forward as the eye can see.
ELLIOTT: How will that affect recruiting Guard and Reserve forces? Is it not easier to recruit them when they have some guarantee that they're not gonna be called for unlimited service?
Gen. PUNARO: Well, you're in the horns of a dilemma here, because on the one hand you're balancing this issue of we have a Guard and Reserve; if they wanted to be on active duty 365 days of the year, 10 years straight in a row, they would have stayed in the active duty military. But they're in the Guard and Reserve, they have civilian jobs, they're doing things with their families. This is the lifestyle they've chosen.
But you have to balance that against the fact that the nation's at war. The active duty military is heavy committed. They're turning around and going once every two years. Marine infantry battalions, the battalion my son served with, they've been back to Iraq now four times. And we owe it to the men and women that serve in these Guard and Reserve units to send them in a unit that's cohesive.
And so the problem you have is, do we basically say, okay, we wanna give you predictability and let you stay home and spend more time with your families, and to do that, we're gonna do all this cross-leveling and we're gonna send less than capable, less than highly trained combat units to war? And I think you've got to side on the side of the troops. I think our troops deserve to be in a unit that's the most highly trained, best equipped, best trained and best led that we can send off to combat.
ELLIOTT: Retired Major General Arnold Punaro now chairs the commission on the National Guard and Reserves. General Punaro, thank you for your time.
Gen. PUNARO: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.