Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Katrina Poses Key Test for Stretched National Guard ; Part-Time Soldiers - Having Served in Afghanistan and Iraq - Are Now Called Up for Duty in Gulf Coast Disaster

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Katrina Poses Key Test for Stretched National Guard ; Part-Time Soldiers - Having Served in Afghanistan and Iraq - Are Now Called Up for Duty in Gulf Coast Disaster

Article excerpt

Even for a force formed before the foundation of the Republic, what lies ahead for the National Guard along the Gulf Coast is something unprecedented in terms of scope.

"We're making history again," says Lt. Col. Robert Horton of the Alabama Guard. "Never before have we supported so many state and federal missions."

If the Iraq war showcases how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has recast the National Guard - turning it from a reserve deployed only in times of crisis to an active, operational force - then the aftermath of hurricane Katrina will go a long way toward determining whether this new mission is spreading America's part-time soldiers too thin, further taxing an already stressed force and endangering the nation.

Though Iraq has strained the National Guard, Defense officials have insisted that there are enough soldiers at home to deal with any domestic disaster. Now, with some Guard members comparing New Orleans to Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein - gripped by chaos and looting - the Pentagon will have to prove its calculations correct.

"This is the test case for the National Guard," says Daniel Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

In all, some 21,000 National Guard troops are either on duty along the Gulf Coast or will be deployed there by the weekend - with 18,000 of those in Louisiana and Mississippi alone. To these, the Pentagon has added 7,000 active-duty soldiers, mostly from the Navy, making the response to Katrina the largest relief effort ever for the United States military.

It comes at a time when 138,000 troops - including 80,000 members of the National Guard - are deployed in Iraq. So far, the dual deployment has not hurt rescue efforts, National Guard officials say. Though more than one-third of the Mississippi and Louisiana National Guard forces are in Iraq or Afghanistan, other states can help plug any gaps.

But outbreaks of violence in New Orleans hinted at the potential for wider unrest and further call-ups, which could reveal weaknesses elsewhere in the nation. "What do we do if there is a terrorist attack?" asks Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress here. "We're increasing our risk."

Yet in Florida, at least, National Guard officials are confident that they have enough soldiers to help out in Mississippi and also remain prepared for any other disaster. Even with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Mississippi, the state will have more soldiers on hand than it needed last year, when four hurricanes hit Florida's coasts.

The concern, however, is that the repeated deployments are turning weekend warriors into full-time soldiers - and perhaps dampening their enthusiasm to continue serving. …

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