Might National Guard forces and military reservists be better suited than regular army troops for the unexpectedly long military occupation that now engages the United States in Iraq?
These "citizen soldiers," who have been called up in record numbers to now comprise nearly 50% of U.S. forces on the ground, are much older. More than 22% of the soldiers in the National Guard are over 40, as opposed to 6% of regular army troops, according to Pentagon statistics.
They are much more likely to have families and established civilian careers. Among the more than 2,000 California National Guard troops serving in Iraq, occupations range from a stockbroker to a phlebotomist (a medical technician who draws blood). Many of them have careers in law enforcement as prison guards or cops.
They are Little League coaches and church leaders, season-ticket holders and weekend sportsmen. Many are old enough to have children serving in the military. More than a few of them do.
In a conventional war, these attributes may be a disadvantage. Prolonged, intense battle is generally a young soldier's domain. But in Iraq?
The question is the basis for the following Q&A, which was conducted via e-mail with two veteran California National Guard soldiers, both of whom previously had regular military careers.
Sgt. 1st Class Rob Espinoza, 45, is a Fresno police officer serving at Camp Cedar II, a former Iraqi airfield near An Nasiriyah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad. Espinoza, an eight-year veteran of Army special forces, is the father of four children. He is with Charlie Company ("Blacksheep") 1-185th Armor (which converted to infantry).
Staff Sgt. Glenn Tucker, 38, is regional sales manager for a Hemet transportation company serving at Convoy Support Center Scania near Nippur, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad. Tucker, who served ten years in the Marine Corps before joining the National Guard, has five children. Tucker is with the Scout Platoon, 1-185th Armor.
Question: Do you think the broader experience and generally more mature nature of the National Guard gives it an advantage in dealing with the Iraqi civilian population?
Tucker: Yes it does. The soldiers are/were, teachers, fathers, mothers, businessmen, coaches. We know how to deal with people and we do not go in guns blazing first. We understand the situation better than the younger active component and will act with cooler heads in most situations. We will knock heads if needed but we have more life experience to understand that looking at the whole situation and finding a peaceful solution is best for all.
Espinoza: I believe many of these soldiers probably have an easier time of mixing with the indigenous people here. And I think this is because many have participated in such events as the Monterrey floods a few years ago. They were able to interact with all levels of society and be successful. Then there were the forest fires where they worked side by side with incarcerated persons, and also went to the riots in L.A. So yes, I think they have a little edge to help them when it comes to interacting successfully with the Iraqis.
Q: What are some examples of actions taken by the National Guard that have helped calm the situation in Iraq and build goodwill?
Tucker: We are respectful to the people that live here. We are providing food, water, building schools, providing security and letting the local people know that it is for their best interest. Example, we stopped at a roadside stand while out on patrol. My team and I were handing out Quicksilver t-shirts to the kids and the elders ask us "Why do you set up check points?" I told them it was to catch the bandits that were threatening their neighborhood. We said that we love the people and the area and we want to ensure that it is safe for them to live and work, without fear. They appreciated that. By the time we were done talking, we had over 100 people listening to us and asking us questions.
Espinoza: Our company goes to the nearby village and delivers fresh water, food and coloring books and crayons for the kids, as well as reading books. I think when building rapport, this is a critical "hearts and minds" thing. And our command here has a working relationship with the local sheik.
Q: How would you compare your skills as a young, regular army soldier or Marine years ago to the National Guardsman you are today?
Tucker: Fifteen years ago I was a young Marine and would have gone in with guns blazing or with a very hot temper without looking at the big picture. Now, I have more experience. I will evaluate the situation and take a course of action that will get the job done with as little fuss as possible. We don't want to turn ordinary people into insurgents that hate us because of a rash, stupid act that could have been avoided. I have raised and am still raising four children. I am active in the community and a sales manager at work. I deal with all types of people every day. This gives me the edge over a younger troop with no life experience who has been trained to think that all people are the enemy. . . . Not that that is a bad thing at times.
Espinoza: I would say it's apples and oranges. Here, I mostly guide my troops. I get to work with them but not always on a daily basis. I am responsible for the administration side of the platoon also. So that takes me away. Then there's meetings, etc. So my role primarily is as a facilitator. It's not what I actually expected. I was told we would be in Balad (North of Baghdad) doing patrols in the streets but that never happened so we had to change gears. As for me as a Special Forces soldier, I was primarily concerned with those I was training to be soldiers in the unconventional war scenario. Or in the urban operations mode, I was primarily concerned with my target.
Q: Does being a father and coach with a civilian career help in dealing with Iraqi civilians?
Tucker: I see that experience come through every day. We have younger troops in our platoon and my experience along with the experience of my fellow senior non-commissioned officers. We all have children, own homes, are active in our communities and this helps us relate to real life situations here. Whether we are responding to a traffic accident, defusing tension in town by using a calm voice or helping a mother and her child find medical care, or by a show of force. Our age and experience makes the difference. We know that a first impression is a lasting impression and we want our first impression to be a good, professional impression. During snap (instant) traffic stops we perform daily, the people are scared of soldiers but we smile, ask a few questions, check the trunks for weapons, check vehicles against a list of bad guy vehicles. After we are done, we say thank you, give the kids some candy and move them along. All with a smile, professional but no weakness. The same thing when we do a raid on a suspected insurgent's home. We know what we are doing, we do it with speed, efficiency and once we are done we leave. We put ourselves in their place. We just want to make the area safe for their families.
Q: How, has extensive police experience helped in dealing with civilians? Was police work good training for what you are doing?
Espinoza: After working some of the traffic control points and seizing weapons — and in one case a bomb — I have noticed that guilty people make the same gestures, nervous looks, as they do in the U.S. But I didn't realize it would be so exact. I suppose there's no cultural barrier when it comes to furtive movements.
As far as setting up traffic patterns and keeping the traffic flow, I have been able to prepare the soldiers how to see a traffic problem coming and address it. As well as identify possible suspects in the vehicles. It seems to have come easily to my soldiers.
Q: CSC Scania, in particular, is said to enjoy good relations with the surrounding population. Is this at least partly the result of the National Guard presence?
Tucker: Yes, it is. The area is also predominately Shiite, and they want to get on with their lives. They appreciate us removing Saddam from power. The area where Scania is located is the breadbasket of Iraq. Farmers tend to their crops like they did 300 years ago and that is all they want to do for the most part. What we have done here should be hailed as a success story. We help, coach, teach and train. That is the difference between the National Guard and the active component.