updated 8/27/2007 8:22:09 PM ET 2007-08-28T00:22:09

The Pentagon is asking National Guard troops and their families to make sacrifices like never before in Iraq and other hot spots, the Army’s chief of staff told a conference bringing together citizen-soldiers from across the country.

Gen. George Casey — and others at the three-day gathering that ended Monday — acknowledged that the Guard’s wider role puts unprecedented pressure on the lives, careers and relationships for troops once considered mostly weekend warriors.

Guard leaders from America’s 50 states and its territories displayed patriotism and a sense of duty, but some also privately spoke of the difficulties of returning to civilian life.

Military commanders pledged to scale back current deployment schedules, realizing that failing to do so might discourage people from enlisting — although the use of the Guard has not translated into a drop in the force’s numbers.

Casey told The Associated Press on Sunday that the military will push ahead with a plan announced in January for National Guard deployments of no more than a year, with troops spending five years at home before redeployment. Currently, Guard members are returning to the battlefield after only 3½ years at home, he said.

“We’re not there yet. All of our forces are deploying at rates greater than we want right now. And we have to put that back in balance,” Casey said after viewing military-hardware suppliers’ exhibits at the San Juan Convention Center, site of the conference.

He told the conference it should take two to three years to reach the cycle of one-year deployment-five years home — in addition to one-year deployments with three years back for the regular military. Some troops now serve 15-month stints in Iraq.

Guard fills out Iraq ranks
Casey has said he would not be comfortable extending troops beyond their 15-month deployments. But other military officials acknowledged privately that option is on the table.

“We are asking more and more of our families than I would ever have thought possible,” Casey said Sunday.

The National Guard has taken a battlefield role whose scope is unprecedented in American history. At one point in 2005, half of all U.S. combat troops in Iraq were National Guard.

Of the 352,000 members of the Army National Guard, 57,000 are mobilized for duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Horn of Africa and other locales, said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard.

Of the total 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today, almost 30,000 are National Guard soldiers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the conference Monday that old notions about the National Guard are obsolete.

“The distinction between the Guard and active forces — a distinction that once was so clear — is now virtually undetectable,” the Republican presidential candidate said.

Vaughn, in an interview Monday, said signing bonuses topping at $20,000 have helped recruitment.

Tough on families, businesses
At least for now, patriotism and a recognition that America’s way of life is at stake have helped keep people in the Guard and attract recruits, Casey said. Some Guard officers attending the conference agreed.

“When you’re deployed, it’s tough on you. It is tough on your family,” said Col. Steven Bensend of the Wisconsin National Guard. “When you get back, you want to separate yourself from military things.”

“I felt it myself,” he added after a pause.

When Bensend, who is an agricultural consultant, returned from a one-year tour in Kuwait to Prescott, Wis., last year, he discovered his customers were gone.

“I had to rebuild my business,” he said.

But he eventually decided to remain in the Guard and said he is willing to be redeployed.

Some feel they have done enough
But some fellow Guard soldiers — and their families — feel they have done enough.

For Linda Anderson, the last straw came when she learned her husband’s one-year National Guard tour of duty in Iraq had been extended indefinitely.

Outraged that many families had learned about the extended deployment from television, Anderson fired off an e-mail to Guard commanders, saying the “raw deal” handed to her husband, Sgt. Randy Hatch, and some 2,600 fellow Minnesota Guard troops in Iraq would spell doom for the state’s force.

“If you think you had a retention problem before, brother, you just made a whole lot of families so angry you’ll NEVER get our soldiers back once we finally get them home,” Anderson wrote in January, copying in the White House on her e-mail.

“I was out of my mind. I was furious,” Anderson recalled in a telephone interview from Princeton, Minn. “I was like, ‘How could they?’ I felt our guys were kidnapped and held hostage.”

Hatch recently returned with the other Minnesotans after 16 months in Iraq. Even before Iraq, they had spent six months training in Mississippi.

One of the first things Hatch did upon returning to the United States was submit his retirement papers. He should be out of the National Guard in September, Anderson said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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