Marine commandant calls for troops to spend more time back in U.S.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps says his force needs to spend more time at home and less time in Iraq.

"Right now there is individual strain in that some of our Marines are going back for a third or fourth time," Gen. James T. Conway said Saturday at a roundtable discussion with reporters. "And there is institutional strain that we're focusing on counterinsurgency and not doing for the nation some of the other things that we should be."

The best way to do that, he said, is to "grow the force." That means for every seven months of active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, Marines spend 14 months at home. Currently, the ratio is about to one to one.

"It's putting a strain on these youngsters, and we think we need to do something about it. We want to keep them around. We want to make sure Momma at home is as happy as a young Marine out there doing good work," he said.

There are about 20,000 Marines deployed in Iraq and about 200 in Afghanistan out of a total of 180,000.

But Conway said the plan he has outlined for more time at home might mean shifting funds toward maintaining rotating active duty personnel and less for the 39,000 Marine reservists.

Conway was in Cape Gir?ardeau on Saturday to give the address at Southeast Missouri State University's commencement.

Raised in St. Louis before graduating in Southeast's class of 1969, Conway returned to campus for the first time in 37 years. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to be the Marine Corps 34th commandant in June. It is the top position in the Marine Corps and one of six that make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Conway said he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a productive meeting with President Bush on Wednesday. Bush, he said, is open to change.

"I think he is considering a strategy change from where we've been. I emphasize the word 'considering,'" Conway said.

The change may come in the form of five more brigades of combat troops being sent to Iraq. The Joint Chiefs could support this proposal, he said, but timing is critical.

"Right now those five brigades, or regiments in our case, are in training and getting ready to go back in," he said.

"So if you reach down and pull those forward, that represents, in military parlance, a surge. If you surge something to bring forward more troops to put them in now, you sacrifice something later on."

He emphasized that such a strategy must do more than maintain the status quo.

"If you commit your reserve for something other than a decisive win or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt" and lost flexibility, he said.

Another challenge facing Conway is equipment. Much of it has been on the ground for the three-plus years of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

According to a joint study this past summer by the Center for American Progress and the Lexington Institute, the Marine Corps has maintained 40 percent of its ground equipment, 50 percent of its communications equipment and 20 percent of its aviation assets in Iraq for more than three years.

The equipment has been used as much as nine times as long as was planned, they found.

But Conway says he is confident the ragged and sometimes ugly equipment can get the job done.

"It may be combat worthy, but you wouldn't want to drive it around Camp Pendleton or Camp Lejeune. You'd get a ticket because all the mirrors have been knocked off. And the gauges, you have to knock on them and then they work," he said.

But his maintenance personnel have assured him that as long as mechanics do their job, "the gear is designed to run when it's run hard."

Recently the Marine Corps asked Congress for $9 billion outside the 2007 Pentagon budget to replace vehicles and equipment destroyed in battle. On Sept. 25, Congress granted only $5.8 billion of the request.

Despite the gap, Conway believes his men and women are sufficiently funded.

"I think 100 percent of our requirement is going to be satisfied. I have absolutely no criticism of the Congress, that they are oblivious to the issue or somehow not providing us what we need," he said.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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