Video: General: Troops stretched thin

NBC News and news services
updated 7/7/2004 7:53:14 PM ET 2004-07-07T23:53:14

The Defense Department is taxing its reserve soldiers “nearly to the breaking point” with repeated and extended deployments in its two ongoing wars, a senior lawmaker told defense officials Wednesday.

“I’m worried ... worried for them, for asking very few to exert an enormous sustained effort for the good of all of us,” said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The committee heard testimony on troop rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, looking with particular interest at reservists and at a move made last week by the Defense Department to call back soldiers who have already served.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Army is forcing thousands of former soldiers back into uniform, a reflection of the strain on the service of long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 5,600 former soldiers — most of them those who recently finished serving and have skills in military policing, engineering, logistics, medicine or transportation — will be assigned to National Guard and Reserve units that are scheduled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Perhaps thousands more are likely to be called up next year, the Defense Department said.

More call-ups expected
The new call-up is the first sizable activation of the Individual Ready Reserve since the 1991 Gulf War, though several hundred people have voluntarily returned to service since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

People in the Individual Ready Reserve are distinct from the National Guard and Reserve because they do not perform regularly scheduled training and are not paid as reservists. They are eligible to be recalled in an emergency because their active duty hitches did not complete the service obligation in their enlistment contracts.

Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, acknowledged that the deployments were causing problems.

"Are we stretched thin with our active reserve component forces right now? Absolutely,” he testified. “We just did the largest move of the Army since World War II."

As one example, Cody said, the Army needs 9,000 more military intelligence officers, but they cannot be trained quickly enough.

“It’s not just the National Guard or the Reserve component units that are doing missions other than what we designed them for,” he said. “Our entire force is doing that.”

Stretched by war needs, the Defense Department has declared a “stop-loss” to prevent the separation of troops who have finished their obligation. The Army is so stretched for manpower that in April it broke a promise to some active-duty units, including the 1st Armored Division, that they would not have to serve more than 12 months in Iraq. It also has extended the tours of other units, including some in Afghanistan.

“We’re taxing our part-time soldiers, our Guard and Reserves, nearly to the breaking point,” Skelton said. “We have to be aware that the families back home are paying a significant price. We don’t want to break the force.”

Critics say the stop-losses and dipping into the Individual Ready Reserve amounts to conscripting people to fight in Iraq. Some say the military needs a permanent increase in troops.

NBC’s Chip Reid and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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