Even as troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are serving longer and more often — three, four, even five times — roughly half of Americans in uniform have not been sent at all.
That’s partly chance, partly a matter of timing. It also illustrates the massive organization on the home front to support an army in the field.
Whatever the reason, it didn’t seem fair to Marine Sgt. Matthew Clark, who sits behind a desk in Illinois but has asked to “go to the fight” instead.
“All these other Marines are going — they’ve been a couple times,” said Clark, who’s been in the service since 1998. “It’s about time that I get out there and give someone else the opportunity to stay home.”
The 28-year-old logistics officer at Scott Air Force Base will get his chance — he recently got orders to transfer this summer to a unit going early next year to Iraq.
Clark is among some 1,000 reassigned for deployment since Marine Commandant Gen. James T. Conway issued a policy message early this year called “Every Marine into the Fight.”
“When they join our Corps, Marines expect to train, deploy and fight,” Conway said in the January message. “That’s who we are. That’s what we do.”
Looking at the numbers
By this spring, roughly 150,000 active-duty soldiers, 85,000 sailors, 90,000 airmen and 65,000 Marines had gone more than once to Iraq, Afghanistan or surrounding countries. About half the total force had not deployed to either conflict, Defense Department figures show.
Fifty-three percent of the active-duty Air Force and 50 percent of the Navy had not been to the wars, not surprising since the fighting is overwhelmingly on the ground.
Still, 45 percent of the Marines and 37 percent of Army forces had never been deployed.
There are many reasons:
- The military is an ever-morphing body, with people coming in and going out constantly. The four branches recruited about 180,000 just last year — meaning there are always new people still in training.
- Though the two wars are the biggest Pentagon efforts, there are tens of thousands of forces in other parts of the world, from Korea to the Philippines to Africa.
- Some duty is three years — such as Marine tours in Japan — meaning a Marine might train, then serve a tour in Okinawa and not have much time left in the enlistment contract for another assignment.
- Some skills aren’t in demand in the war zone: Purchasing, personnel, maintenance, training and administration, for example.
“There are a lot of folks doing God’s work right here stateside that are invaluable to the people overseas,” said Col. Daniel Baggio, an Army spokesman. “The spirit of the Army is really that folks want to do their part ... in any way they can. ... They go where they’re told to go.”
Just a matter of time?
Anyone who stays in for more than one enlistment can pretty much count on going overseas.
“We like to say there are three kinds of soldiers: those that are deployed, those that have been deployed and those that are going to be deployed,” Baggio said.
Comparisons with previous wars are hard to make because of differences in the types of conflicts, the makeup and size of the forces of the era and other factors.
In World War I, 2 million of the 4.6 million in the military went overseas, according to National Defense University research.
When the number of troops in Vietnam peaked at more than half a million in 1968, the Army had more divisions deployed in Southeast Asia than it has in its 10-division force today. The military shrank for decades after that war, the draft was abolished and the professional, all-volunteer force started.
Now, there are almost 220,000 troops, airmen and sailors serving in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns — 150,000 in Iraq, 28,000 in Afghanistan and 40,000 in neighboring countries and on ships offshore.
Stretched thin by years of war, the Pentagon announced in April that it was adding three months to the standard yearlong tour for all active-duty soldiers in both conflicts. Marines still do seven-month tours.
Conway’s January order directed leaders to change policies “to ensure all Marines, first termers and career Marines alike, are provided the ability to deploy to a combat zone.”
Since then, officials have been identifying people who haven’t deployed, looking at assignment lengths and making needed changes, said Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel of the Marine assignments office.
Dakota Wood, a retired Marine and fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it’s a good idea.
The Marine Corps is a “war-fighting-oriented organization,” Wood said. “People join the Marines to be operational. That’s the kind of person you’re drawing; they’re looking for excitement, engagement.”
You don’t get those things, Wood said in a football analogy, “if the same 11 guys take the field and you keep sitting on the bench.”
There are inevitably some people who don’t want to go, who are suspected of manufacturing a health problem or maneuvering into a job that will help them stay put, Pentagon officials say privately. In fact, there are those who like their location or work and don’t want any of the moves that can come with military life.
People in the military call them “homesteaders.” One is said to have worked in Washington his entire 17 years in the service and never been deployed anywhere.
As for Clark’s move from Scott AFB, he saw Conway speak at a town hall meeting in March and asked how a Marine in his position could deploy. Within weeks, word of his transfer arrived.
His new job will be operations chief in a unit that schedules aircraft and crew for missions and training.
The Lakewood, Wash., native — with a 17-month-old son of his own — said his parents don’t want him to go, “but they understand. Because of my job, they’re going to accept it.”
And his wife Christine’s thoughts on his leaving?
“She’s OK with it,” Clark said. “She understands why.”