Specialist Kelly Schulz was filled with doubt and fear when her Army National Guard unit was sent to Saudi Arabia. At no time were those emotions stronger than the night a Scud missile killed 28 Americans in Dhahran, where she was stationed.
“Never in a million years did I think I would end up some place like that,” said Schulz, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Texas in Austin, who joined the guard for adventure and financial help for college. “I really thought I’d made a mistake.”
Her medical-supply unit was about two miles from the converted warehouse that was struck by parts from a Scud on Feb. 25. Many of the Americans killed were reservists from western Pennsylvania.
Schulz was one of 350 doctors, nurses and other medical specialists of the guard’s 217th Medical Evacuation Hospital who were sent from Texas to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in January. It wasn’t really until her unit became the first to return to the United States this week that Schulz was sure she’d done the right thing by signing up.
Thousands of part-time soldiers had similar doubts during the months away from jobs and families. In anxious phone calls home, they heard spouses describe uncertain finances and listened to fears never anticipated by the families of these weekend warriors.
Now that they have begun to trickle home and piece their lives back together, the full impact of the burdens and the fruits of war will be felt--and it may help shape the future of the citizen-soldier concept in the United States.
“They have performed, by every indication, exceedingly well,” said Stephen M. Duncan, assistant secretary for reserve affairs at the Defense Department. “Even though people incurred sacrifices and hardships, when they come back I hope they will fully recognize their importance to the nation.”
When President Bush activated the first reserves last August for the Persian Gulf buildup, it was an unprecedented test of the Pentagon’s “total force” concept. The idea of combining active and reserve troops in time of war was forged in the wake of Vietnam, largely as a way to bind the public to the military.
“In the euphoria of the quick, decisive victory, people are being driven to make quick judgments,” said Martin Binkin, a military affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But obviously one has to be very impressed with the total force concept, with one exception.”
That exception is the problems of the three National Guard combat brigades called up for expected deployment alongside active Army troops in the desert. These so-called “round-out” brigades are a key part of the total force idea.
But all three were deemed too unprepared to be shipped out for the Gulf War. To some, the results invalidated the concept of expecting troops who train two days a months and two weeks in summer to be ready for combat on short notice.
“To put it in perspective, you wouldn’t send a team with 40 days training into the Super Bowl,” said a confidential analysis prepared for the Defense Department.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney responded quickly to this lesson. He said in an interview Wednesday that the Army should abandon its reliance on guardsmen and reservists as rapid-deployment combat troops, although they would retain a role as reinforcement combat soldiers.
Rep. Beverly Byron (D-Md.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that it may be too soon to pull the plug on guardsmen as short-notice combat troops. But, she added, “I think we are still going to have to find out why those round-out brigades had trouble getting going.”
But those brigades amounted to only 14,000 of the 227,000 reservists activated for the war. And, as was the case with other aspects of the Persian Gulf War, the bulk of the news about the reserves and guard units was good.
Military officials give high marks to the units that provided critical logistic support in the war zone, ferrying troops and equipment to the front, fixing vehicles, delivering food and providing medical care.
Reservists had combat roles, too. Early reports are that aviation reservists performed exceptionally well, as did National Guard artillery gunners and small Marine combat reserve units. For instance, a Marine reserve unit from Yakima, Wash., destroyed 31 Iraqi T-72 tanks in a single battle.
Experts say that two key factors were responsible for the problems with the Army’s round-out brigades and the success of the support units. First, brigade-strength combat troops must engage in complex field maneuvers as a cohesive unit, which requires long training together, while aviators and support personnel rely more on individual skills and operate in much smaller units. Secondly, reservists do not use combat skills as part of their peacetime jobs, while driving a truck or flying an airplane in civilian life is basically the same as doing so in war.
“These combat support and combat service support units generally have uncomplicated unit functions, even though many of their individual skills are complex,” said Gen. Edwin H. Burba Jr., commander of all Army forces based in the United States.
These issues will become increasingly important in the coming months as the Pentagon and Congress debate the role of reservists in the smaller armed forces. Plans such as Cheney’s for changing the combat role of the Army National Guard are likely to bolster efforts to cut the size of the nation’s million-member reserve force. Yet the overall high-quality performance will no doubt buttress those seeking a larger role for the reserves.
Members of the 217th National Guard unit from Texas had expected to use their medical skills to treat thousands of American casualties. The flood of injured never came. But the experience of war--including the Iraqi Scud missile bombardment, time away from home, the decisive victory and emotional homecoming--changed their lives and attitudes about part-time soldiering.
After arriving back in the United States on Sunday, members of the 217th spent three days undergoing medical exams and filling out final paper work at sprawling Ft. Sam Houston, one of five bases in a city bound to the military by economics and sentiment.
As they milled around a base gymnasium one recent afternoon, they talked about the trip many considered one of the best experiences of their lives and others saw--in the beginning, at least--as an enormous mistake.
Specialist Maria Martinez, 19, of New Braunfels, Tex., joined the National Guard in December, 1989. Like many, she hoped it would help her finance college. A year later, she was sent to Saudi Arabia to work in a psychiatric unit.
“I thought it was the biggest mistake I’d ever made,” said Martinez. “I just kept telling myself I had to be strong.”
Her father was furious that the military would risk her life in a battle zone. Her mother, she said, “just prayed all the time.”
Martinez’s own attitude improved with the quick end to the war. She and her family were suddenly proud of her role. But, “I’ll never forget the fear over there,” she says.
Others believe that the length of time the reservists were kept away from home and their role in combat support will change the kinds of men and women drawn to reserve service.
“This is going to draw more of the kind of people who want to dedicate themselves to a cause,” said Capt. Christine Bradshaw, a psychiatric resident in the Texas National Guard unit. “You’ll see fewer of the people who’ve been coming for the other benefits.”
Sgt. Connie Faircloth, a nurse in the unit, was more blunt: “The ones who thought the guard was a picnic are going to get out. The committed ones will stay.”
Faircloth is a single mother. Activation of the Texas unit meant that she had to put her possessions in storage and send her 9-year-old son to live with his father’s family in North Carolina. Her son took it very hard.
“He had seen his father walk out on him, his sister die and now it looked like his mother might go off and get killed, too,” said Faircloth.
Like many, she came home racked by guilt. She called her son and offered to move to North Carolina so he could stay in school there. “He just cried,” she said. “He said: ‘I want to go home.’ ”
Financial pressures were felt by reservists at all levels. Independent business operators were perhaps hardest hit.
Lt. Col. James B. Shook, an orthopedist with the Texas National Guard unit, is half of a two-man practice in Victoria, Tex. He was able to get by when his partner, a reservist, was called up last August. But when Shook received notice last December that he, too, was being pressed into service, he was forced to lay off seven of his 10 employees and hire a “rent-a-doc” to fill in.
Now he faces lost income and trying to get the practice back on its feet without his partner, who has been told that he will not return until August. Still, Shook said that he has no regrets about his guard obligations.
“I got all my medical training from the military, so I sort of feel I owe them,” he said. But the past months “have been pretty hard on the practice. We’ll have to see what we have left.”
Experiences such as those of Faircloth and Shook may cause some reservists to leave the service and deter others from joining. Duncan and other reserve officials said that it’s too early to tell what the impact of the war will be on recruitment and retention of existing members.
“We will suffer an attrition, but I believe that historically the tough missions help recruiting,” said Col. James Davis of the Georgia National Guard, commander of one of the combat brigades that did not complete training in time for deployment.