War's Strain Wearing on Troops

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War's Strain Wearing on Troops

USA Today | November 25, 2005 [Think what it is like now!]

WASHINGTON - Drawing lessons from his own career, Col. Mat Moten tells his students at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., they could one day have a duty just as important as fighting terrorism: helping rebuild an Army fractured and exhausted by a long and unpopular war.

For Moten, it's a familiar story, one he first heard as a West Point cadet in 1978. Then, the all-volunteer Army was struggling after Vietnam. "It's not a cheery message," Moten says.

It's a message also echoed last week by Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and 37-year veteran of the Marine Corps, as he called for troops to start leaving Iraq immediately.

"The future of our military is at risk," Murtha said. "Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards."

Although there's no agreed-upon standard to determine the war's overall effect on the military, even those who disagree with Murtha about an immediate withdrawal, including senators such as Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., agree that the strains on a force fighting two wars at once are obvious.

A series of Pentagon and congressional reports show the bill for worn-out equipment is climbing, recruiting is suffering and stress has become a serious occupational hazard for U.S. troops.

Despite the problems, the Army isn't about to break, says retired general John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff during the Iraq invasion. Morale remains high, and the part-time forces in the National Guard and Army Reserve have a "remarkable" commitment.

The equipment

The war in Iraq is taking the biggest toll on military equipment since the Vietnam War, after which the Pentagon retooled its arsenal during the massive military buildup of the 1980s.

Fixing and replacing Army equipment alone could run from $60 billion to $100 billion, according to retired general Paul Kern, a senior consultant to the Cohen Group and the just-retired head of Army Materiel Command. The total cost for wear-and-tear on U.S. equipment is unclear because it is not known how long American troops will be needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The part-time military has its own equipment problems caused by missions in Iraq and commitments at home. A recent Government Accountability Office report said more than 101,000 pieces of National Guard equipment, including items such as trucks, radios and night vision devices, have been sent overseas, mostly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's left the Guard short of equipment it needs to respond more quickly to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

The Guard's top general, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, told USA TODAY in September that a shortage of communications gear hampered the hurricane recovery effort.

"We were underequipped," Blum said. "We don't need tanks and attack helicopters and artillery, but we must have state-of-the-art radios."

Iraq and Afghanistan are putting an extra $8 billion per year of wear and tear on military equipment, according to a report in April from the Congressional Budget Office. Military trucks are being driven at 10 times their peacetime rates; armored vehicles are being used at five times their peacetime rates and helicopters are being flown at twice their usual rates.

Shortages have cropped up in Iraq, such as a lack of protective armor for troops' bodies and vehicles. Troops also faced shortages of spare parts such as truck tires, and weapons such as machine guns, according to a series of GAO reports.

Gary Motsek, who manages the Army's program to repair war-torn equipment, says the Army has to repair or rebuild virtually everything that goes to Iraq.

The people

Nowhere is the war's stress more evident than with the people who make up the military's "boots on the ground" services.

The ground forces -- the Army and Marines -- are racing to make Iraq stable before the troops wear out and leave, says Dan Christman, a retired Army lieutenant general who served during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said last week that the United States went into Iraq with too few troops and doesn't have sufficient forces to maintain current levels.

"We are grinding down our force structure to the point where we have no force structure," Hagel said. The Army is keeping most of its soldiers from retiring or leaving for civilian jobs. It has had to increase its bonuses to keep some highly skilled soldiers -- truck drivers, military police, bomb disposal troops -- from leaving. The war has made special operations troops so attractive to private contractors that the Pentagon is offering unprecedented bonuses of up to $150,000 to keep some enlisted commandos in the ranks.

"We're holding our breath in hopes we can steer through this," says Col. Lance Betros, head of West Point's history department.

A crucial question is the commitment of units anticipating their third tours in Iraq. That, Betros says, is when the Vietnam-era Army began to fall apart.

The wars are taking a toll on military families, too: According to Army figures, divorce among officers jumped by 78% in 2004, though the numbers fell back in fiscal 2005. Divorces among enlisted soldiers increased by 28% in 2004 and have stayed at about the same level this year.

Army units are failing to meet Pentagon guidelines to spend two years at home for every year overseas. When the Army's 101st Airborne Division returned to Iraq this year, it was after an 18-month rest. The 3rd Infantry Division, which is also on its second tour, had a 15-month break. Recruiting is at a crisis level for the Army. The active-duty Army and the part-time Army National Guard and Army Reserve all missed their 2005 recruiting goals by 8% to 20%. The three fell short by a combined 24,000 enlistees.

The Army met its recruiting goals in October, the first month of the 2006 fiscal year, but 12% of its recruits scored in the lowest category on military entrance tests on science, math and word knowledge, The Sun of Baltimore reported this month. That was triple the number -- 4% -- that the Army expects in 2006.

The 2006 recruiting numbers could suffer, despite recruiting incentives that include cash bonuses of $20,000 and enlistments as short as 15 months.

The Pentagon isn't keeping good enough records to make sure the bonuses are going to recruit the kinds of troops needed, according to a GAO report released last week. The study says the military was unable to fill 112,000 Job positions in key specialties in the past year, while the services offered bonuses for specialties that are consistently overfilled.

Copyright 2005 USA Today.

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