National Guard Lacks Critical Equipment at Home

an M35 truck

At Camp Dodge, the Iowa National Guard relies on outmoded equipment like this M35, a vehicle that has been the Guard's workhorse since the 1960s. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen, NPR

Despite the importance of the National Guard to the war effort in Iraq, a recent GAO report shows that Guard units across the country have just 34 percent of the equipment they need. And the critical shortage appears to be hurting the Guard's ability to respond to emergencies in the United States.

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The war in Iraq changed much about the National Guard. Its members were once considered weekend warriors who picked up some extra money in return for an occasional weekend of training and being on call in case of emergency. Well, today, the National Guard makes up nearly one-third of the troops in Iraq. And despite their importance in the war, Guard units often complain about a critical lack of equipment, from vehicles to weapons to communications gear. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, the shortages appear to be hurting the Guard's ability to respond to emergencies here at home.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

It's a frosty Saturday morning in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Outside, it's snowing hard. Inside the National Guard armory building, about 90 soldiers are in formation trying to stay warm.

Unidentified Man #1: Company.

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) Platoon!

Unidentified Man #1: Atten-hup! ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: At ease.

ALLEN: These soldiers make up the 168th Infantry and recently returned from duty in Afghanistan. Now the Guardsmen and women are picking up the thread of their civilian lives and trying to keep their training fresh through monthly drills. But Captain Gary Benda says that's not always easy. When it returned from Afghanistan, the 168th left behind much of its most important equipment. Benda says what he and his troops miss most is their 240 Bravo machine guns.

Captain GARY BENDA (168th Infantry): It's just when you see the old Chuck Norris movies when he comes out of the water with that M-16 machine gun; very similar. We left all of those over there. So our weapons squad--and every company has three weapons squads, so nine weapons squads will not be able to train this year and probably in the next couple of years because the active-duty will take that long to field those new 240 Bravos.

ALLEN: And it's not just weapons. Across the country, National Guard troops have just over a third of the equipment that they're supposed to have. One reason is historical. The Guard was always equipment-poor, in part because of its status as a backup force. But as Iraq has demonstrated, that's no longer the case. Since 2001, some 4,000 of the Iowa Guard's 7,500 soldiers have been deployed overseas; 12 have been killed. But Guard members say when they get back home, they often feel cast off from the Army that they're a part of.

Colonel Mike Harris is the logistics director for Iowa's National Guard. He says when the war in Iraq started, Guard units had just over two-thirds of the equipment they needed. And as they've been deployed overseas, they've been forced to take equipment from other Guard units at home.

Colonel MIKE HARRIS (Logistics Director, Iowa National Guard): So then when you spend three years deploying in the theater, there has been a massive cross-leveling of equipment to those units that deploy. So right now, you know, there's units that are reaching critical mass on whether they're going to be able to sustain training and equipment and personnel readiness going forward.

ALLEN: National Guard troops say it's not a problem while they're overseas. When they're in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're outfitted just like their active-duty counterparts. But when they come home, Pentagon policy requires that the Guard leave its critical equipment behind for replacement troops. The National Guard estimates that since 2003, it's left more than $1.2 billion of its equipment overseas and so far has received little to replace it. The Guard back at home is short of weapons, night-vision goggles, satellite phones and other communications gear. It's also short on vehicles.

Lieutenant Colonel BRAD SHELL(ph) (Camp Dodge): This is the mechanical maintenance wing. I think most--all of these vehicles you're seeing in here are returned from either Afghanistan or Iraq.

ALLEN: Lieutenant Colonel Brad Shell supervises the maintenance shop at Camp Dodge just north of Des Moines, where Iowa's National Guard makes its headquarters. In the cavernous garage, battered Humvees are in pieces on the floor. Mechanics work half-buried under the hoods. Colonel Harris walks over to a vehicle that since the 1960s has been a National Guard workhorse, the M-35 2 1/2-ton truck.

Col. HARRIS: And this is the oldest cargo vehicle that we in the inventory. This type of vehicle cannot deploy to Iraq. It is on the do not deploy list, and our units are still populated with this type of equipment.

ALLEN: The Guard is used to hand-me-downs, but as its mission changes, Harris says the lack of new equipment becomes critical. For example, the 2168 Transportation Company, which deployed to Iraq last year, took along 61 brand-new Freightliner tractor-trailers.

Col. HARRIS: The unit did an outstanding job of performing their mission, running from Kuwait into Iraq for the year they were in theater. And they got ready to come home, and they left all their equipment in theater. So the challenge going forward is being able to maintain the strength of the unit and the training readiness with no equipment.

ALLEN: Although the National Guard equipment crisis has been years in the making, it came into stark relief in September with Hurricane Katrina. Guard troops sent to Louisiana and Mississippi found rescue-and-relief efforts hampered by a lack of vehicles and communications. An investigation by the General Accounting Office found that National Guard troops now have just 34 percent of the equipment they need to prepare for overseas missions and to help in emergencies here at home. When it was released, the Army said it concurred with the report's findings and that it would develop a plan to fix the Guard's equipment shortage. The Army National Guard's director, Lieutenant General Clyde Vaughan, says right now the Guard is being forced to train using some equipment that dates back to the Vietnam War.

Lieutenant General CLYDE VAUGHAN (Director, Army National Guard): That is not acceptable, and the Army realizes that. And if we're going to deploy people rapidly today, we've got to train on the same kinds of equipment.

ALLEN: One reason it's important is because of the way the Guard trains. Guard troops are supposed to be always ready with the skills and training they need when they get the call. But Iowa's Army National Guard commander, General Mark Zirkelbach, says his troops don't even see much of the equipment they'll use in theater until they're mobilized and sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

General MARK ZIRKELBACH (Commander, Iowa Army National Guard): The equipment today is really complicated. The command-and-control systems are very complicated. And to expect a soldier and a unit to really become proficient in that in four months or six months and then go into a lethal situation is probably not a fair expectation.

ALLEN: While everyone agrees that, in principle, the National Guard needs more and better equipment, finding the money to pay for it is another matter.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): It's been like pulling teeth getting the amount of money we need for the Guard.

ALLEN: Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, co-chairs the Senate National Guard Caucus. He helped insert an amendment into a Senate spending bill that added $1.3 billion in funds for National Guard equipment. Leahy says with the changing role of the Guard, its needs should no longer be forced to take a back seat.

Sen. LEAHY: I think we have to re-evaluate how we look at the National Guard. We have to do a far better job at providing everything from medical care to education for them, because it's obvious they're being called upon not as a last line of defense but as a first line of defense.

ALLEN: The National Guard estimates that it will need more than $20 billion over the next several years to restock and update its equipment. At Camp Dodge, Iowa's National Guard leaders say they don't believe the equipment shortage has affected the morale of soldiers in their command. But Army brass say they worry that unless they fix the problem, it will send a message that the Guard, now a linchpin in the country's national defense, is compromised of second-class soldiers. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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