National Guard Endures from One Gulf to Another

Veterans for Common Sense -- Guest Column

NATIONAL GUARD ENDURES FROM ONE GULF TO ANOTHER

By Diane M. Grassi         September 15, 2005

There is evidence that there will be many heroic tales to be told and to be heard as the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Alabama and Florida recover from the worst hurricane to hit the United States in recorded history. And unfortunately there will be stories forthcoming due to the loss of life, the loss of livelihoods and devastation, some permanent, as well as the remarkable rearrangement of shoreline of parts of the Gulf of Mexico resulting from Hurricane Katrina’s strength.

The U.S. will feel, on a national scale, the strife and ramifications due to the shut down of one of the country’s major ports and supplier of 25% of the nation’s petroleum, as well as the indefinite shutdown of New Orleans, one of the largest tourist cities in the nation. However, another segment of the population of residents from southern Louisiana, New Orleans, as well as southern Mississippi will no doubt have life changing stories to tell as well, perhaps like no others.

Members of the Army National Guard with Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the 1st Battalion – 141st Field Artillery Regiment started their return to the U.S. on September 10, 2005, after serving a year in a war zone in Iraq. 545 members of the unit severely impacted by the storm due to the loss of their homes, missing relatives and those with family who have relocated to other states, were the first to return of the nearly 2,500 members of Louisiana’s Guard serving in Iraq. Remaining members are set to return the third week of September at which time their tour of duty was originally scheduled to conclude. All will arrive at Ft. Polk, LA.

According to Army Brigadier General John P.Basilica, the Brigade Combat Team commander, “We are very, very well trained and have performed recovery operations in the past. We have a significant number of soldiers in the brigade that are ready to transition from this fight to that fight,” when referring to the recovery efforts taking place on the Gulf Coast. “We’re going to get our arms around these soldiers and make sure they’re taken care of, and then we will take care of the rest of the population that is suffering.”

Unique to the troops serving in Iraq who are now returning to their stateside post is the combination of having no homes to return to for many, many of them. On top of that, many plan to take part in the recovery process, further delaying their plans to either re-enlist or to make plans to return to their civilian lives. Many Guard members’ places of employment are also gone now. And while family members have relocated to other cities or states, it is but another obstacle for the troops in their decision-making process. Unofficial estimates have about 800 of these troops interested in continuing in the service and 1,500 want to return to civilian life. The remaining 200 are undecided.

After taking part in combat operations, training Iraq security forces, and providing essential services for Iraqis which included economic development and governance for the past year, the 256th Infantry BCT soldiers look forward to getting a break and returning to loved ones. There is always an adjustment period for soldiers returning from war and now these self-sacrificing soldiers who originally enlisted as part-time soldiers with the Guard have much to contemplate and bear. There are those, now with jobs gone, who were looking forward to returning to civilian life but must now reconsider re-enlisting as active duty Army in order to maintain an income.

Not all of the troops affected by Katrina’s devastation will be lucky enough to return home any time soon, however. Members of the Mississippi Guard’s 155th Brigade Combat Team serving south of Baghdad have about 600 members who live in the parts of southern Mississippi and southeast Louisiana hardest hit by Katrina and about 300 members  of the 155th Brigade’s B and C companies suffered complete losses of their homes or severe damage. Only 80 Mississippi Guard members have been granted emergency leave of 15-day days thus far. The rest of the company has completely been refused leave and were told that they must wait until mid-January to return to the U.S., upon completion of their tours of duty.

Soldiers in the 155th Brigade have stated and relayed to relatives via e-mail or telephone that they were told by their brigade command that all other forward operations “are tapped out and therefore cannot send troops home.” According to Marine spokesman, Major Neil F. Murphy, Jr. of the Marine Expeditionary Force to which the 155th Brigade is attached, said he is investigating the source of those command statements as so many claims of the information were brought to his attention. This has added to the stress which soldiers must endure, with many still not aware of the status of their homes or relocations of their families.

The need for the National Guard called up in Katrina’s aftermath, with 50% of Louisiana’s Guard deployed in Iraq and 40% of Mississippi’s Guard there as well, has prompted elected officials in statehouses as well as in Congress to consider revisiting how the force is utilized. Americans and elected officials from both parties have had nothing but praise for Guard members. Most were put in an impossible situation upon arrival for hurricane duty, some having even being shot at by people in New Orleans.

But lawmakers have questioned whether the poor communication between the federal government and the states involved in addition to overseas deployments of the Guard, inordinately delayed the necessary quick arrival of troops. Congressman Gene Taylor of Bay St. Louis, LA whose home was washed away also commented that the lack of local knowledge of Guard members retrieved from other states impacted the response effort as well.

Lt. General Steven Blum, Bureau Chief of the National Guard has stated, “Arguably response time was lost due to the absence of the Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Brigade and Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade. Had they not been in Iraq, their expertise and capabilities could have been brought to bear.” He went on to say that the assignment of thousands of Guard troops from Mississippi and Louisiana to Iraq delayed those states’ initial hurricane response by about a day. Additionally the ability to recruit and retain Guard members is of concern to Congress regarding stress on manpower and the dual-duty required of troops stateside and in Iraq. Equipment availability is also a worry.

According to Senator John Thune (R-SD) of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “All those things are going to become much bigger issues that we’re going to have to address.” Senator Jack Reed (R-RI) also on the committee asked, “How do you maintain overseas deployment of significant numbers and still maintain a Guard force in the U.S. capable of responding to disasters?” And while the federal government has not always brought the Guard under its control for overseas military missions, in recent years these part-time citizen soldiers have been called upon by the Pentagon, often for extended tours. Additionally, governors and members of Congress have had apprehensions about long active-duty tours, which could impair recruitment and retention levels along with an indefinite amount of time now for hurricane assistance.

And Senator John Warner (R-VA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said on September 13th believes, “That Hurricane Katrina could lead to major changes in the military, including revoking or relaxing restrictions on putting active-duty military troops into domestic law enforcement duties.” Although Senator Warner said that he has been working on the concept for 18 months noted, “The time has come that we should just reflect on the Posse Comitatus Act and other statutes that have served this nation quite well in years passed.”

The Posse Comitatus Act restricts military involvement in law enforcement. The Insurrection Act allows for some exceptions to the law, however its inability to enact swift law enforcement in emergency situations is limiting.  “We face an uncertain future as it relates to terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction. The hurricane provides an example of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that are close to overwhelmed,” according to Senator Warner.

Senator Warner is not in a hurry to enact changes, but he wants discussion about whether changes in military and criminal law should be made. “We need to look at the totality of permanent law and regulation to determine what changes should be made to meet contingencies of the nature we have experienced, whether it is a natural disaster or a terrorist attack in the future. But Katrina with its heavy military involvement, provides examples that can help bring attention to the need for a review of the laws,” Warner said.

The great sacrifice on behalf of our volunteer soldiers and their families cannot be stated enough. Like all victims of Katrina, those soldiers returning home from overseas will need the support of the American people and various levels of government as they readdress their lives. And it is through such sacrifice which will hopefully bring new light to improved ways our military is best maintained and appropriated by state and federal governments in the future. Maybe some good can be realized from Katrina, after all.

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