Oct. 26, 2003: Second Class Treatment for First Class People

You may have read recently that Les Brownlee, Secretary of the Army, says he is going to improve conditions for members of the National Guard and the Army Reservists at Ft. Stewart who are living in barracks without indoor toilets and who are receiving inadequate medical care. When Mr. Secretary gets that little matter under control, he might want to wing his way to Iraq and see the shabby treatment reservists and guardsmen are getting there.

I have been in communication over the past few weeks with an officer of a Georgia National Guard unit currently stationed in Iraq. I will call him Steve (not his real name). I won’t identify him or his unit in case some military desk jockey decides to take issue with what he has told me.

Steve and his unit are in Iraq because the Marines needed help in executing a critical mission in Iraq earlier this year. The Marines asked the Navy for their assistance. The Navy didn’t have the expertise. Neither did the Army. So they turned to the National Guard and specifically to the Georgia National Guard. For security reasons, Steve could not tell me anything about the mission.

Despite the urgency, the Georgians cooled their heels for 60 days at Ft. Stewart waiting for transportation. They were issued two sets of uniforms and one pair of boots, which were expected to last them for a year. When the unit finally got to their destination, they completed their assigned task quickly and successfully and believed they would be returning home in June. Instead, they were sent to one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq where they have been ever since. Their uniforms are about worn out and some of the soldiers are wearing used boots from the Air Force.

Regular Army personnel are being rotated out of the war zone regularly. Not the National Guard. Ironically, the general who ordered the National Guard to stay in Iraq for a year is himself rotating out after a 180-day tour. Steve says he and his unit have to listen to regular Army personnel who came to Iraq in July, openly complain about missing Thanksgiving. He and his people have been in Iraq since February and know for certain that they will be spending Christmas there.

The personal and financial sacrifices that these Georgians are making for us are considerable. When the troops were mobilized, military health care coverage for them and their dependents was for a year and is set to expire on Feb. 6, 2004. Many of the troops have no company health care coverage back home, so if they are still in Iraq on Feb. 7, they and their families are flat out of luck. Are you listening, Secretary Brownlee?

The troops can’t tell their employers when they will be home, either. Employers, by law, do not have to pay employees who are suddenly activated, although many do. You have to wonder how much longer companies can afford to carry these people on the payroll in an economy where every dollar counts. I am sure the reservists and guardsmen wonder the same thing. These folks aren’t full time soldiers. They are accountants, police officers, architects, electricians and teachers. They need to know they are going to have a job when they get home.

This officer goes to great pains to assure me that he and his colleagues are proud to be American soldiers and to have had the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the war effort in Iraq. He just asks that the Army Reserves and the National Guard not be treated as second-class citizens.

I hope the Army Secretary, or someone in the state adjutant general’s office or any member of the Georgia congressional delegation will tell me why they allow our fellow Georgians and others in Iraq to be treated this way and why the hell anybody would volunteer for the National Guard or Army Reserves under these conditions. Also, I would be curious to know if any of them would be willing to make the same kind of sacrifices for us that these heroes are making. If I hear back, I will let you know.