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Guest Post: When Saying, “Thanks for Your Service” Doesn’t Cut It by Anonymous

(Today's guest post is by an anonymous soldier. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

In October the Defense Department’s number two official, Ashton Carter, visited some of the United States’ nearly 15,000 troops in Kuwait and thanked them for their service and sacrifice before--from what can be construed from news reports--totally failing in trying to describe why these soldiers were forced to sit in the Kuwait desert away from their families and undertaking no real mission or purpose. (For the full article.)

From the average citizen, the words “thank you for your service” are the best connection a civilian can often think of to bridge the gap between their own and the military world. But from Ashton Carter, it just doesn’t cut it. Carter totally failed in his explanation of why we are keeping thousands of troops in Kuwait.  And what Carter may not know is that the bulk of those troops are being drawn from Army National Guard units, taken away from civilian jobs and civilian lives to sit in the desert for a year.

The rationale behind this deployment in Kuwait lies in a DoD strategy to keep thousands of troops in certain ‘strategic lily pads’ throughout the Middle East for a presence in those countries even while the U.S. shifts focus to Asia. Kuwait was perhaps the most notable example, as after the withdrawal from Iraq, thousands of troops were stationed in Kuwait and this report sought to keep a baseline of 13,500 troops there. A large number of those are currently Army National Guard soldiers instead of active duty ones.

So what’s with the National Guard?

The military reserve (which includes the Army and Air National Guard, as well as the reserve component of each service) used to be what was termed a “strategic reserve,” meaning, effectively, that if World War III broke out, they would be called upon to augment the active duty forces. In Vietnam the National Guard existed, but was not deployed, because the Army was able to draft people directly to the regular Army and send them to the front lines. With an all-volunteer and extremely expensive military, the reserve became a cheap way to augment active duty troops and was called-up heavily during Desert Storm in 1991. And in the recent years it has been used extensively throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the last decade, the reserve has become an “operational reserve” meaning that they are continually called up to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Considering the size, complexity and intensity of these wars, it is understandable that reservists have been mobilized. But Iraq is over, and there are only 60,000 service members left in Afghanistan. So why are so many reservists populating Kuwait? Why aren’t they being brought home so the deployments be done by active duty soldiers?

Well, the Defense Department sees the National Guard as a cheap way to maintain its strength. They only have to pay reserve soldiers active duty pay when they need to, and otherwise, can force them to fend for themselves in the civilian world, where their unemployment rate far exceeds that of the average citizen. They don’t have to provide nearly the training or equipping budget. Furthermore, with these basic missions the Army can ensure that the National Guard keeps its skill level moderately high and doesn’t return to its joke status of the 1980s when its only operational experience was that of returning Vietnam veterans from active duty.

The frank language of the 2013 DOD budget makes it clear, “Today’s Citizen Warriors have made a conscious decision to serve, with full knowledge that their decisions mean periodic recalls to active duty under arduous and hazardous conditions.” (2013 DOD budget summary)

Bottom line: They plan to keep deploying reservists as long as they want to. Their basic argument boils down to, “We will, because we can. You signed up for it, we will use you however we please.”

This, I would argue, is not a sustainable model and is one of the most callous pieces of bureaucratic crap I have ever read, even from the Defense Department. Nor is it a just use of our nation’s most precious resource. The Army is at least trying to think this one through, as reported in August in the Army Times. According to the article, the Army is “working hard to reach a balance in training that allows units to achieve their required readiness while remaining acceptable to families and employers.” Great idea, however, I do not believe the Army is capable of coming up with a solution that benefits anyone other than the Army.

Reservists signed up to serve, and are uniformly proud of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, bogus, involuntary activations to serve on useless deployments will drive them away. At least, it will drive away the good ones worth having.

It also does not account for civilian employers. Let me be honest about what I have seen: the Pentagon is staffed by careerist officers, political appointees and civilians who think war is a chess game to be played from a desk. They think soldiers are an input, a commodity resource. They are disconnected from reality. In their mind, USERRA rights, which prevent discrimination in hiring, promotion and firing against reservists, actually prevent discrimination against reservists and allow them to create elaborate training schedules that encompass weekdays and extra training in the summertime.

Reality check: soldiers have to have real jobs (or should), and in a rough economy, these Pentagon policy makers are totally blind to the job discrimination that reservists face. If you run a company, and you know a reservist will be deployed every five years, and you look on his resume and he hasn’t been deployed in the last 3, would you hire him?  If you have five candidates for a job, and one is in the National Guard, this means you know he will, at a minimum, be gone for two weeks every year, and probably want to take a vacation at some point too. Would you hire him?

The military will keep deploying our military reservists as long as we let them. They will hold ceremonies and say, “Thank you for your service” and keep shipping soldiers over to sit in Kuwait or Africa and then cutting off their benefits as soon as they get back home so they can get their “cost effective returns on significant DOD investment.” (This gem of a phrase was also included in the 2013 budget referring to the reservists.)

But does that make it just?

six comments

I tend to agree that this in the long run severely hurts the Army Reserves and National Guard. I definitely would have considered joining the NG if I believe we would only be activated in cases of severe need for national defense or national emergencies (like Sandy). People don’t join the reserves to actively fight current wars, they join the active duty to do that.

Keeping reserve troops in Kuwait—which I can’t believe is still happening—just doesn’t make sense.

The military has become the private army of the Congress and President. The citizens don’t care what it does since only a few are directly affected by what the military does. They make all the statements they want but ultimately little is changed. The DoD’s only concern about maintaining a war is whether they have the budget to handle it and whether they can stay under the public media radar as best as possible. I keep thinking that bringing back the draft might be the only way to cut all the politicking focused on by senior leadership. (I believe at one time the Army was concerned that its senior leadership wasn’t skilled enough to handle the beltway and so adjusted junior and senior leadership training accordingly to make them more politically adept. Great good that did.) The draft would get people more invested in what the military is doing and have a better grasp on internal processes simply with more people directly involved. You’d have a more democratic force rather than a nearly politically homogenous force that feels no one (liberals) understands them and complains accordingly. You’d have capable individuals who never considered the military maybe taking a second look and deciding to commit their talents to the military rather than having a force of mediocre individuals who see it as a cool job where they get to shoot and drive cool vehicles. I don’t have anything against those who’ve joined (considering I’m one of the bunch) but the process that we’ve developed to maintain a strong force is failing. Our military is extremely technically adept at what it does but I don’t think it has any idea anymore of how to actually win a war. Oh, did I mention that the military-industrial complex and logistics contractors have every incentive to lobby for a war to continue as long as possible? Same way elements of the law enforcement industry continue to lobby for the continued prohibition of drugs. And they can do it because ultimately the American people are tragically far removed from the Congress’ mercenary military. I’ll take back the mercenary part but let it lie just for consideration.

I’m posting twice – once fact-based, once commentary.

US wars from the Civil War to Vietnam involved a draft as well as mustering (what we now call) the National Guard. Although limited, Reserve Component units were mobilized during Vietnam.

Post-Vietnam (and again after Desert Shield/Storm), the Army changed its force structure to place its enabling forces in the Reserve and additional combat force in the Guard.

Today, using Reserve and Guard units – in any location – is not about being callous, it’s about being pragmatic, and about meeting the requirements.

Why are Reservists populating Kuwait? Having been involved in this process … Because they’re the units that can do the validated missions. Some RC units don’t exist in the active component, but will be required for some time as we redeploy and close out Afghanistan. In the worst case, it’s because someone didn’t “turn off” a mission (e.g., a previous Commander believed a mission was necessary but now it’s not). However, personnel caps and money constraints being what they are, missions are being closely examined to determine whether they all are needed. [On the rare occasion that units do get into theater or are already in theater and their missions end, their orders can be decremented or a new mission can be identified for them, based on a variety of factors, likely hardship being one.]

How do Army units get sourced for a deployment? Army’s priority is AC first. It’s cheapest because they’re already on duty, paid, and trained.

In the USAR, priority are units in their Available Year for the ARFORGEN cycle (which unit is “supposed” to go that year). We consider whether there are “more” or “less” healthy units based on personnel, training, and equipment. These are not Pentagon decisions. We contact the unit’s major command to determine if there is any outlier information that makes that unit not be in the shape that the data shows.

While DepSec Carter may be a terrible speaker, the Reserve and Guard ARE “cost effective returns on significant DOD investment.” It’s unreasonable to say that the Defense Department “forces” grown adults to fend for themselves in the civilian world. It’s not as if Reserve Soldiers are capable of defending the nation one day but ‘withering away’ in the face of the cold cruel civilian world the next – I’m offended at the idea!

Yes, the unemployment rate is higher. No, USERRA doesn’t perfectly protect. This doesn’t make using Reserve Forces unjust. Every person currently in the RC either began or continued their military service during this decade of contingencies. People have free will; they aren’t being impressed into service.

The only benefits that are “cut off” upon return is base pay and housing. Makes sense, though – honest pay for honest work and all that. I keep a lot of benefits as well.

For instance, Tuition Assistance; Commissary privileges; Investment / TSP; Dental insurance for me, my family, or my child; Medical insurance; Post-9/11 GI bill that I didn’t contribute to for 36 months full tuition & fees, plus a book stipend & housing allowance that’s transferrable to my spouse and child & payable for 15 years following my release from active duty; Five years cost-free health care for any service-related condition; VET Center counseling accessible for free to me, my family, my children (all designed to be away from military posts); Reduced Retirement Age based on Active Duty Performance in support of contingency operations; and Post-Deployment Mobilization Respite Absence Leave.

RC Soldiers are about evenly divided – a 1/3 each make more, less, and the same when they are on duty. For the group that makes a lot less, from 2006-10, Congress passed the Reserve Income Replacement Program, which provided a MONTHLY payment of up to $3000 for the differential between their base pay and their average civilian income.

Are these things beneficial to the military? Most, at least indirectly for retention. But largely, they benefit me. And it’s up to me – and the rest of the adults in the Reserves with me – to make good choices along the way. I’ve opted for fewer big screen TVs and bling sent to the house and more saved, knowing that the deployments would end and I’d go back to my normal paycheck, or looking for work.

We are a Total Force. The NGB and USAR EXIST to deploy in support of the Active Component. If that’s not what someone signed up prepared to do – deploy when called upon – then he needs to finish his service obligation and depart.

I did raise my hand. I swore an oath. It wasn’t contingent on what I was going to “get,” but I sure have been fortunate, and I’ve tried to make halfway decent decisions along the way.

It is unjust to expect the military to be more than what it is.

So let’s understand a few things – there is a rationale for keeping 10-15,000 troops in Kuwait, it’s called “support to Iraq/watching Iran” or “lillypad” for short. You may not like the strategy but it supports US policy to have a presence in the region. It only dates back to the 1980s or so.

As for the National Guard – let’s be clear that the agency you need to address with your outrage is the National Guard Bureau. For the past decade plus, the NGB has lobbied Congress to ensure that its combat arms units are as well-equipped and trained as the active component. Even when it takes 90-180 days to spin up a NGB combat brigade, they insist on equal capability and priority of new equipment. So when the US govt decides to draw down the active component and to retain the same level of Reserve and NG manpower over the next five years, exactly what do you think is going to happen? The commitment of US forces overseas isn’t going away. So yes, the NG has to step up and take the role that it has demanded from the Big Army.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s math. While it would be nice to see the NG as more of a strategic reserve and working on homeland security issues, politics – initiated by the NGB – dictate otherwise.

“kn” and Jason accurately laid out the policies, strategy, and rationale of this RC vs AC discussion. I do agree that the “victims” in this scenario are the civilian employers who lose key employees for long periods of time. Their reward for hiring/retaining RC members are pretty much zero. This is the group that deserves more than an ESGR certificate and lapel pin. (The equivalent of “Thank you for your service!”)