There will be no large-scale shifting of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to help with disaster relief in Louisiana and Mississippi, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Thursday.
Lt. Col. Trey Cate said top military officials are exploring ways to bring individual troops home to take care of families in need without altering the balance of forces in the war zones.
But top commanders are unsure if homecoming service members can yet visit areas stricken by Hurricane Katrina due to flooding and evacuations that are under way.
“There are lots of different options of getting soldiers back there,” said Cate, who is based in Qatar. “We’re going to do our best to take care of the troops and their families.”
In Baghdad, some 3,700 soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard’s 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade were preparing to return to their base in Lafayette, La., after spending nearly a year in combat in Iraq.
The 256th is expected to begin the trip home within weeks, and would be available for disaster relief at the discretion of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad.
“They are not going to redeploy early as they are already in the process of redeployment,” Boylan said.
Navy Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, a U.S. 5th Fleet spokesman in Bahrain, said no U.S. warships in the Gulf would be redirected to disaster relief in the Gulf of Mexico, but individual sailors with family emergencies could be granted home leave.
National Guards deal with shortfall
National Guard units called up for rescue work in Louisiana and Mississippi had to make do without members currently deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
National Guard troops from Alabama and Wisconsin, along with other law enforcers, were ordered to deal with the shortfall.
Most Americans identify the National Guard with providing emergency services during natural disasters. But in the past three years, numerous Guard units have been sent to Iraq to fight alongside regular forces.
The Louisiana brigade watched the disaster unfold on television as they finished their nearly yearlong deployment to Camp Liberty, west of Baghdad. The troops are expected to leave Iraq by November, if their deployment is not extended.
Boylan said the Army was providing the Louisiana Guardsmen extra Internet and phone lines to contact family and friends affected by the hurricane.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle agreed to send 500 Wisconsin National Guard troops to Louisiana Wednesday to help out. The Wisconsin Guard itself is stretched, with 1,700 members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and another 1,000 mobilizing for deployment overseas.
Blanco said she has asked the White House to send more rescue workers to free up the 4,000 National Guard troops already in New Orleans to stop looting and return law and order to the flooded city.
A brigade of Mississippi National Guard soldiers also remains in Iraq, attached to the II Marine Expeditionary Force.
More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated to help with the recovery, and the neighboring Alabama Guard was planning to send two battalions to Mississippi to help cover the shortfall.