Reserve chief says his force was not properly prepared to fight

Friday, September 17, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The chief of the Army Reserve said Thursday that his force of part-time soldiers has yet to fully adapt to the demands of a global war on terrorism, even though half of the 205,000 Reserve members have been called to active duty since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We're at war, this is a hard war and we, frankly, inside the Army Reserve have been not properly prepared for it," Lt. Gen. James Helmly said, adding that he sees some signs of improvement.

Many members of the Army Reserve, like their fellow part-time soldiers in the National Guard, are not used to being mobilized for the kind of long and dangerous duty they face in Iraq.

"Every time I visit a unit I take about 45 minutes to an hour and try to talk to all of them and explain to them every initiative we have underway to properly prepare ourselves and bring the institution to a wartime footing, but it's hard," Helmly said.

The Army Reserve has about 38,500 on active duty now, and those in Iraq are serving 12-month tours, which is twice as long as mobilized Reserve members spend on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia and Kosovo.

For years the conventional wisdom among members of the Army Reserve was that they were unlikely to get mobilized, and if they did it would be for non-combat duty in a secure rear area, far from the fighting. The war in Iraq, where no soldier is immune from attack, has shattered that belief.

Too often, Helmly said, he hears that members of a newly mobilized Reserve unit respond to the news of their activation by saying, "I didn't think it was going to happen to us," and they are not prepared.

"I frankly have started to put a boot up some people's fannies about getting everyone ready," he said.

As an example of the mindset he is working to change, Helmly described the reaction he got from the 98th Division, whose main mission is training other U.S.-based Army units, when it was told that about 800 members will be mobilized and sent to Iraq in October to help train the Iraqi army.

"I've gotten cards, letters, e-mails (saying), 'How can you do that?"' he said.

In the 45 years since the 98th Division became part of the Army Reserve it has never deployed abroad, according to spokesman Steve Stromvall, although it did occupation duty in Japan in 1945-46 as an active-duty infantry division. It is scheduled to spend 12 months in Iraq.

Generally the Army Reserve's role is to provide support services like medical specialists, military police, and truck drivers. The active-duty Army gets its backup combat troops mainly from the National Guard. In Iraq, however, danger haunts every soldier, regardless of role.

"Driving that truck is one of the most hazardous damned occupations we have in Iraq, and the truck drivers and the MPs are front-line troops these days," Helmly said.

As an illustration of that, the fatalities announced by the Pentagon on Thursday included Spc. Lauro G. DeLeon Jr., 20, of Floresville, Texas, of the Army Reserve's 644th Transportation Company based in Beaumont, Texas. DeLeon was killed by a roadside bomb that exploded near his vehicle convoy on Sept. 8 near Balad, a major U.S. logistics base north of Baghdad.

At least 49 members of the Army Reserve have died in Iraq since the invasion began in March 2003, and Helmly said 58 have died overall since the global war on terrorism began in October 2001.

The numbers killed and wounded are the highest for the Army Reserve since the Korean War of 1950-53, he said.


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