MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Today, the Pentagon announced that it is sending four National Guard combat units to Iraq. Most of these soldiers have already spent 18 months away from their civilian jobs and their families, many of them deployed for the better part of a year to Afghanistan, Kosovo. And still others are returning after less than three years to Iraq. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Tim Thomelson(ph) had a gut feeling he had not seen the last of Iraq. He left in February, 2004 with his Indiana National Guard battalion after a year patrolling the supply lines south of Baghdad. He's now back in Indianapolis.
TIM THOMELSON: There is work to be done, but I would say that the Iraqi people, for the most part, you know, they want the same thing most people in the world want. They want to get up, make a good living and have a safe and secure environment to raise their children and be successful in.
BOWMAN: And to try to help secure the Iraqi people, the Pentagon is sending his entire brigade, the 76th out of Indianapolis, some 3,000 soldiers. Similar Guard combat units are coming from Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas. The units will train this year and start heading back in December and into 2008. They will spend a little less than 12 months in Iraq.
The active-duty army and Marines have been stretched thin by repeated deployments to Iraq. Most of those full-time troops have had little opportunity to be at home to rest and to retrain.
MICHAEL O: You need almost half of them overseas at a given moment in time.
BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon is a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.
HANLON: That is generally considered to be an entirely unsustainable pace of deployment, and so the only hope of sustaining anything like this is to have the National Guard part of the mix, as well.
BOWMAN: Some worry about using the Guard too much on these overseas missions. O'Hanlon says the strains on the Guard are the worst they've been in decades.
HANLON: I think that in terms of what we're asking people on repeated deployments, this is probably like some of the worst moments in Korea, but it almost harkens back to World War II.
BOWMAN: As a result, some of these soldiers may decide they can't keep up with the pace. The Guard says its retention and recruiting numbers look good, but already there is some reasons for concern.
ROGER LEMPKE: They are showing indications of individuals that are retiring sooner than they might otherwise.
BOWMAN: Major General Roger Lempke is the head of the Adjutants General Association. That's the group of top national Guard officers from around the nation. Lempke says senior sergeants and some officers are now deciding to leave.
LEMPKE: Those that have reached the 20-year point are eligible to leave, and they're vested for a retirement at age 60, and I think probably some of those are retiring instead of staying on. If they stay on, then they may get called back.
BOWMAN: O'Hanlon says there are other indicators among both the active and reserve forces. Divorce and suicide rates are increasing. West Point graduates are retiring early.
HANLON: The sky is not falling, but we do have to be worried about these warning signs, especially because if and when the sky does start to fall, it may be too late to quickly do repair work in short order.
BOWMAN: Thomelson of the Indiana battalion says he sees few warning signs among his unit. For the most part, his soldiers expect to deploy.
THOMELSON: All of our soldiers know what they're enlisting for now. You know, there are soldiers that have hardships for various reasons, family, employment, etc., that this is certainly not good new for, but they are soldiers, and they understand that aspect.
BOWMAN: Thomelson says his unit will now set aside their jobs as contractors, turkey farmers and prison guards. They will start training immediately on new radio equipment and trucks, learning how to man checkpoints and avoid roadside bombs. Tom Bowman, NPR News, The Pentagon.