Staying in the Guard
LEHI - The gray metal lockers at the Utah National Guard armory on Main Street bear layer upon layer of masking tape, each strip imprinted with successive names of soldiers who have left for deployments.
The pieces of tape are but one reminder of massive mobilizations of guardsmen and reservists in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at levels not seen in the United States since World War II.
The push for a quick turnaround was evident on the day this month Sgt. 1st Class Ken Allmon and 34 other soldiers from the 115th Engineer Battalion left behind careers, kissed their families goodbye and boarded a bus to start their trip to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before deployment to Iraq. Allmon's name was still taped to Locker No. 3 when he left but mobilizations have brought so many changes that the engineers aren't even sure they will be assigned to the same armory when they return, let alone the same lockers.
Yet, despite the dangers and the juggling of families and civilian careers with more and longer deployments, Allmon is among the 80 percent of soldiers and airmen responding to a first-ever public survey of the Utah National Guard who indicated they are staying in the military, with nearly 20 percent saying they are getting out.
Utah Adjutant Gen. Brian Tarbet said he's gratified and a little surprised at the high numbers of Guard members who plan to stay - but added that Army brass are still working for deployments much shorter than the current 16 to 18 months.
"It's a morale killer, especially the time spent at mobilization stations before deployments," he said. "And these long deployments are arduous. The family has got to be as tough as the soldiers."
Utah's high retention rate is typical nationwide, as veterans offset new-recruit shortfalls. In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the U.S. armed forces missed their recruitment goal by nearly 13,000 new soldiers, squeezing veterans even more.
"The problem is that as the force gets older and higher in rank, the Army has a hard time maintaining lower-rank jobs that are critical to the military," said Mike O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. "I don't know when it will get too disruptive, when one unit has to borrow soldiers from another to fill out its ranks. But it's significant when 5 percent of the force has to serve at the wrong rank."
Currently, the Army National Guard is at 95.2 percent of its total fighting force while the Utah Guard is at 97 percent.
A Salt Lake Tribune survey found that the No. 1 reason for re-enlisting was loyalty to comrades. Survey answers from more than 417 soldiers and airmen who have served at least one deployment were buttressed by interviews with some 50 Guard members.
"In active-duty, people move around a lot," said Allmon, who served five years regular Army before joining the Guard 10 years ago. "Here, even if someone moves to another unit, you run into them. You know what they can do. You know a lot of people, sometimes right down to their parents' anniversaries."
Allmon, who served seven months in Afghanistan two years ago and now faces a 16-month tour, points to his wife as the reason he is able to serve.
As she gathered up the leftover doughnuts and milk she brought to the farewell ceremony before her husband's unit left for the Salt Lake City International Airport, Melissa Allmon said, "He loves the military and we see a bigger picture of the good that he's doing."
Bellwether state: Utah has shouldered more than its share of mobilizations. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Utah led the nation when more than 80 percent of its forces were placed on alert or mobilized. Those early deployments have resulted in Utah Guard members serving more tours than their counterparts nationwide.
Nationally, of the nearly 500,000 Guard and reservists deployed since September 2001, only about 76,600 have been called up twice - and all but 2,200 of them volunteered for a second tour, according to the Pentagon. And nearly one-third of the volunteers - for both Guard and reserves - listed a Utah address.
In Utah, not all soldiers deployed twice are volunteers. The 222nd Artillery Battalion, with 500 soldiers, has been ordered to serve two tours, first stateside and now in Iraq. At least 30 percent of the respondents to the Tribune survey had served a second tour.
"Because Utah is further along in deployments, we're the canary in that so goes Utah, so goes other states," said Tarbet. "We're seeing the challenges that hit us first - getting a job back, readjusting to families, post-traumatic stress. We're a cut above but we're not an anomaly."
Currently, guardsmen and reservists comprise 25 percent of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and 40 percent in Iraq. Part-time citizen soldiers also have suffered one-quarter of all U.S. deaths since the Iraq war began in 2003 but the proportion has grown in relation to the regular force. For the first nine months of 2005 reservists accounted for 36 percent of U.S. deaths, and for August and September it was 56 percent, according to Pentagon figures.
In the age of an all-volunteer Army, how long America's guardsmen and reservists will continue serving multiple deployments as death numbers climb is a national security concern. The Pentagon has indicated that Guard members can expect a call-up every five years.
More deployments are on the mind of Sgt. Scott Faddis as he decides how long he'll stay in the Guard. Faddis, 27, is the kind of mid-level veteran whom analysts worry the U.S. military may be losing. His nine years of service aren't enough to guarantee he'll stay for the next 11 years when he's eligible for retirement.
"A small percentage of us are taking this on for the whole country," said Faddis, who returned in April from a yearlong stint in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is facing the prospect of duty in Iraq. "It's like 1 percent of the people are in the position of being shot at multiple times on multiple deployments."
Faddis, a military journalist, plans to stay but added, "the time I lose with my family can never be recovered."
The Tribune survey results show that while Utah has a willing fighting force, soldiers and airmen are facing personal and financial obstacles that are placing great strains on them and their families. More than one-third of the respondents said they took a cut in pay when they were deployed, an average of $10,000 or more.
Money at the root: Capt. Michael Turley, 39, said his employer made up the difference in pay when he attended officers candidate school, but not during his 16-month deployment to Iraq - when he lost up to $15,000 in pay - or now while he's helping with hurricane cleanup in Louisiana. Turley, who plans to stay in the Guard, said he knows the software company where he works could not afford to continue paying differentials during repeated deployments. According to the survey, few employers continued to pay deployed soldiers to make up for the difference between their civilian and military wages.
Staff Sgt. Glen Burr, 37, said his six-month stateside deployment that cost him $5,000 in lost civilian wages was a shock but worth the price. He counts himself lucky "because my wife and employer are supportive. I know some good guys who have gotten out because they didn't have that kind of support."
Still, financial incentives were the next biggest reason for staying in the military. Many soldiers and airmen in the survey said their full-time military pay was more than what they earned as civilians.
Architectural design consultant Carl E. Greene, a 16-year veteran, said he plans to stay in the Air Guard because he loves to travel and enjoys the camaraderie, plus "the extra money each month is a great aid to my family."
But pay and promotion are factors in the decision of Walter Henriquez, 35, to opt out as soon as he's eligible for retirement. Henriquez said he and six other soldiers cannot move up in rank because the Army does not accept Guard qualifications - including the 16 months Henriquez served repairing attack Apache helicopters in Afghanistan.
"We're being ordered to drop everything - our careers and family - to bolster the active-duty, but the Army won't recognize our Guard qualifications," said Henriquez.
Didn't sign up for that: Sgt. Chris Johnson, 23, whose five brothers are former guardsmen, also plans to opt out to pursue full-time civilian career goals put on hold by deployment. In April, Johnson returned home after serving a 16-month stint in Afghanistan.
Johnson's other brothers Caleb, 30, Bill, 28, and Nick, 26, served in Iraq with the 1457th Engineers Battalion when U.S. troops were stretched so thin that their orders were extended four times - from six months to 16 months - before they came home last summer. None of the three re-enlisted.
"If I wanted to serve that many deployments, I'd join the active-duty Army," said Caleb Johnson, a civil engineer who helped repair the main bridge into downtown Baghdad while under fire.
Staff Sgt. Tatiyana Renaud, 31, who served tours to Uzbekistan and Kuwait, may opt out because leaving her 9-year-old daughter with a family member for a second time was more difficult than the first.
"Short notices make it even worse," said Renaud, who serves in military intelligence and is among 450 women in the 6,500-member Guard.
For his part, Sgt. 1st Class John Kyle Hill, who served two stints in Afghanistan as a medic with the 19th Special Forces, is staying in and hoping for another tour. Hill, a Nebo School District high school science teacher, said that unlike many of his students, his comrades are highly motivated.
"We lived on the edge in a life-and-death situation," said Hill, 42. "There was no apathy, no laziness. It was ennobling. It was the greatest thing I've ever done."
1st Lt. Bruce Bishop, 31, a Salt Lake County firefighter, said he'll stay "because as I look around at the state of this nation and see all of the weak little pampered candy-asses that are whining about this or protesting that, I'd be afraid to leave the fate of this nation entirely up to them."
Bishop, who served in Afghanistan, is among the 450 Utah Guard members deployed to Louisiana. Most are volunteers.
In their own words
Some survey responses why they are staying in the National Guard:
"Age 55 Guard retirement."
"It's who I am; it's what I do."
"Duty, honor, country."
"Fight the war."
"I'm an American and we are at war."
"I actually like my job."
"If not me, who will do it?"
"I love it!"
"It's the right thing to do."
"Love for my country."
"Loyalty to country and retirement."
"Patriotism and paycheck."
"Protection of U.S. way of life."
"The country needs us."
Why soldiers are leaving the National Guard:
"1st Sgts. & platoon leaders."
"Don't care anymore."
"Got another job."
"I want to be free."
"Lack of leadership."
"Medical insurance is very bad. They don't pay!!!"
"Nobody can get the pay right. Takes too long to fix."
"Not enough money or bonuses."
"Not worth the risk."
"Tired of higher rank bullheadedness and lower rank slothfulness."
Would anything make you change your mind and re-enlist?
"A conflict that I believe in."
"Better training. Better leaders. Less inspections."
"Get rid of the stupids."
"Health benefits for guard members."
"Maybe if they paid me $1,000,000."
"If my wife said yes, but that will never happen."
"Promotion and big bonus."
"Reduce the stupidity."
"Retirement - same as full-time soldiers."
"There's not enough paper to list everything."
"Three years for $30,000 signing bonus."
"Truck load of cash."
"Two-rank promotion and a desk job."
"Yes, GI Bill extension, $25,000 re-enlistment bonus."
If your family life has not returned to normal, what are the reasons?
"Death and divorce."
"Deployment aggravated / created marital concerns."
"Deployment changes everything. Never goes back to normal."
"Depression, loneliness, hard time, relationships."
"Mother died while I was deployed."
"Financial problems / stress."
"Missed my oldest child's senior year and graduation."
"I got divorced 11 months after deployment."
"Need professional counseling to help kids."
"Marital affairs. Too long of a deployment."
"Nobody loves me."
"Father terminally ill, I wasn't allowed to come and visit."