msnbc.com news services
updated 9/16/2004 6:11:48 PM ET 2004-09-16T22:11:48

The chief of the Army Reserve said Thursday that his force of part-time soldiers had yet to fully adapt to the demands of a global war on terrorism, even though half of the 205,000 Reserve members had 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 saw 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 under way to properly prepare ourselves and bring the institution to a wartime footing, but it’s hard,” Helmly said in an interview with a group of reporters.

The Army Reserve has about 38,500 members 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.

Helmly said he told Reserve soldiers: "You must prepare yourself physically, mentally, spiritually, such that you are prepared for a call to active duty just as if you knew the hour and the day that it would come. That’s a long-term change” from attitudes developed over decades.

Unaccustomed to combat duty
For years, the conventional wisdom among members of the Army Reserve was that they were unlikely to be mobilized and that if they were 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 that 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 would 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 Steve Stromvall, a spokesman, 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.

Severe hit on recruitment
Helmly said the guerrilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan was putting all U.S. troops under growing mental stress even as the military struggled to keep and recruit soldiers. The impact is especially acute in Reserve and National Guard units, he said, citing a study released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

“While our end strength is solid and we will make our recruiting goal this year of non-prior service enlistees ... it is increasingly tough,” Helmly said.

Helmly complained that he felt constricted in the ability to retain troops because, among other things, he had been refused permission to pay re-enlistment bonuses to active Reserve members.

“Well, the logic escapes me,” he said. “One does not wish to attack a manning problem after the fact. It is too late.”

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, deaths announced Thursday by the Defense Department included that of 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 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.

As a result, he said, the military is changing its training of all Reserve and National Guard troops to make them more prepared for combat, no matter what jobs they have.

“I tell chaplain’s assistants: ‘You are unprepared for the battlefield. You must prepare yourself mentally, and you must be prepared to engage and kill an enemy in close combat.’”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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