DOÑA ANA RANGE, N.M. — Members of a California Army National Guard battalion preparing for deployment to Iraq said this week that they were under strict lockdown and being treated like prisoners rather than soldiers by Army commanders at the remote desert camp where they are training.
More troubling, a number of the soldiers said, is that the training they have received is so poor and equipment shortages so prevalent that they fear their casualty rate will be needlessly high when they arrive in Iraq early next year. "We are going to pay for this in blood," one soldier said.
They said they believed their treatment and training reflected an institutional bias against National Guard troops by commanders in the active-duty Army, an allegation that Army commanders denied.
The 680 soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment were activated in August and are preparing for deployment at Doña Ana, a former World War II prisoner-of-war camp 20 miles west of its large parent base, Ft. Bliss, Texas.
Members of the battalion, headquartered in Modesto, said in two dozen interviews that they were allowed no visitors or travel passes, had scant contact with their families and that morale was terrible.
"I feel like an inmate with a weapon," said Cpl. Jajuane Smith, 31, a six-year Guard veteran from Fresno who works for an armored transport company when not on active duty.
Several soldiers have fled Doña Ana by vaulting over rolls of barbed wire that surround the small camp, the soldiers interviewed said. Others, they said, are contemplating going AWOL, at least temporarily, to reunite with their families for Thanksgiving.
Army commanders said the concerns were an inevitable result of the decision to shore up the strained military by turning "citizen soldiers" into fully integrated, front-line combat troops. About 40% of the troops in Iraq are either reservists or National Guard troops.
Lt. Col. Michael Hubbard of Ft. Bliss said the military must confine the soldiers largely to Doña Ana to ensure that their training is complete before they are sent to Iraq.
"A lot of these individuals are used to doing this two days a month and then going home," Hubbard said. "Now the job is 24/7. And they experience culture shock."
But many of the soldiers interviewed said the problems they cited went much deeper than culture shock.
And military analysts agree that tensions between active-duty Army soldiers and National Guard troops have been exacerbated as the war in Iraq has required dangerous and long-term deployments of both.
The concerns of the Guard troops at Doña Ana represent the latest in a series of incidents involving allegations that a two-tier system has shortchanged reservist and National Guard units compared with their active-duty counterparts.
In September, a National Guard battalion undergoing accelerated training at Ft. Dix, N.J., was confined to barracks for two weeks after 13 soldiers reportedly went AWOL to see family before shipping out for Iraq.
Last month, an Army National Guard platoon at Camp Shelby, Miss., refused its orders after voicing concerns about training conditions and poor leadership.
In the most highly publicized incident, in October, more than two dozen Army reservists in Iraq refused to drive a fuel convoy to a town north of Baghdad after arguing that the trucks they had been given were not armored for combat duty.
At Doña Ana, soldiers have questioned their commanders about conditions at the camp, occasionally breaking the protocol of formation drills to do so. They said they had been told repeatedly that they could not be trusted because they were not active-duty soldiers — though many of them are former active-duty soldiers.
"I'm a cop. I've got a career, a house, a family, a college degree," said one sergeant, who lives in Southern California and spoke, like most of the soldiers, on condition of anonymity.
"I came back to the National Guard specifically to go to Baghdad, because I believed in it, believed in the mission. But I have regretted every day of it. This is demoralizing, demeaning, degrading. And we're supposed to be ambassadors to another country? We're supposed to go to war like this?"
Pentagon and Army commanders rejected the allegation that National Guard or reserve troops were prepared for war differently than their active-duty counterparts.
"There is no difference," said Lt. Col. Chris Rodney, an Army spokesman in Washington. "We are, more than ever, one Army. Some have to come from a little farther back — they have a little less training. But the goal is to get everybody the same."
The Guard troops at Doña Ana were scheduled to train for six months before beginning a yearlong deployment. They recently learned, however, that the Army planned to send them overseas a month early — in January, most likely — as it speeds up troop movement to compensate for a shortage of full-time, active-duty troops.
Hubbard, the officer at Ft. Bliss, also said conditions at Doña Ana were designed to mirror the harsh and often thankless assignments the soldiers would take on in Iraq. That was an initiative launched by Brig. Gen. Joseph Chavez, commander of the 29th Separate Infantry Brigade, which includes the 184th Regiment.
The program has resulted in everything from an alcohol ban to armed guards at the entrance to Doña Ana, Hubbard said.
"We are preparing you and training you for what you're going to encounter over there," Hubbard said. "And they just have to get used to it."
Military analysts, however, questioned whether the soldiers' concerns could be attributed entirely to the military's attempt to mirror conditions in Iraq. For example, the soldiers say that an ammunition shortage has meant that they have often conducted operations firing blanks.
"The Bush administration had over a year of planning before going to war in Iraq," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has acted as a defense lawyer in military courts. "An ammunition shortage is not an exercise in tough love."
Turley said that in every military since Alexander the Great's, there have been "gripes from grunts" but that "the complaints raised by these National Guardsmen raise some significant and troubling concerns."
The Guard troops in New Mexico said they wanted more sophisticated training and better equipment. They said they had been told, for example, that the vehicles they would drive in Iraq would not be armored, a common complaint among their counterparts already serving overseas.
They also said the bulk of their training had been basic, such as first aid and rifle work, and not "theater-specific" to Iraq. They are supposed to be able to use night-vision goggles, for instance, because many patrols in Iraq take place in darkness. But one group of 200 soldiers trained for just an hour with 30 pairs of goggles, which they had to pass around quickly, soldiers said.
The soldiers said they had received little or no training for operations that they expected to undertake in Iraq, from convoy protection to guarding against insurgents' roadside bombs. One said he has put together a diary of what he called "wasted days" of training. It lists 95 days, he said, during which the soldiers learned nothing that would prepare them for Iraq.
Hubbard had said he would make two field commanders available on Tuesday to answer specific questions from the Los Angeles Times about the training, but that did not happen.
The fact that the National Guardsmen have undergone largely basic training suggests that Army commanders do not trust their skills as soldiers, said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. That tension underscores a divide that has long existed between "citizen soldiers" and their active-duty counterparts, he said.
"These soldiers should be getting theater-specific training," Segal said. "This should not be an area where they are getting on-the-job training. The military is just making a bad situation worse."
The soldiers at Doña Ana emphasized their support for the war in Iraq. "In fact, a lot of us would rather go now rather than stay here," said one, a specialist and six-year National Guard veteran who works as a security guard in his civilian life in Southern California.
The soldiers also said they were risking courts-martial or other punishment by speaking publicly about their situation. But Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Dominguez, 45, one of the soldiers who allowed his identity to be revealed, said he feared that if nothing changed, men in his platoon would be killed in Iraq.
Dominguez is a father of two — including a 13-month-old son named Reagan, after the former president — and an employee of a mortgage bank in Alta Loma, Calif. A senior squad leader of his platoon, Dominguez said he had been in the National Guard for 20 years.
"Some of us are going to die there, and some of us are going to die unnecessarily because of the lack of training," he said. "So I don't care. Let them court-martial me. I want the American public to know what is going on. My men are guilty of one thing: volunteering to serve their country. And we are at the end of our rope."