September 12, 2011

National Guard, Reserves Vital to America’s War Effort

One day, Charles Barkey was working in a four-wheeler shop, selling lift kits and bug shields and floor mats.

The next day, Sept. 12, 2001, Barkey was called to active duty in the Utah Army National Guard.

Ten years later, the 43-year-old Barkey has yet to leave the guard’s payroll.

He has been either employed or deployed ever since. He’s served three tours of duty, guarding airports in St. George and Cedar City in the aftermath of the terror attacks and later, deploying to Iraq and then Afghanistan.

“My life,” says Barkey, “took a huge turn.”

And he is not alone.

More than 815,000 reservists (members of the Army and Air National Guard and reserves of every military branch) have mobilized since 2001 to help the nation fight two wars, a full flowering of a seed planted at the end of the Vietnam War. That’s when the United States ended the draft and began relying on volunteers for both active duty and reserve forces.

Today, citizen soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines comprise about 43 percent of those deployed for war. Of the 92,000-plus reservists and guard men and women deployed at home and abroad as of Aug. 31, nearly 1,300 were from Utah. A fifth of those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan — nearly 850 men and women — were members of the guard and reserves.

It’s no surprise that one of the images National Guard and reserve members consider iconic for the post-911 transformation is a picture of a cargo truck with a sign proclaiming, “One Weekend a Month My Ass!”

Texas Army Reservists scrawled that message — a riff on the guard’s old slogan about serving a weekend a month and two weeks a year — on a piece of cardboard and stuck it in the front window as they drove on a base outside Baghdad in 2003.

“For years, soldiers would walk out the door on Fridays and say, ‘I’ve got to go play Army this weekend,’ ” says Maj. Gen. Brian L. Tarbet, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

“We are the military to most citizens today. If you think of a uniform, you’re probably thinking of a guardsman or a reservist, who is your neighbor.”

The 'no-go's'

During the Vietnam War, the nation’s leaders deliberately kept the guard and reserves home, and those units became a refuge for those who wanted to serve — but not go to war.

The label “weekend warrior” was meant as a slur, but it was apt.

“National Guard were ‘no-go’s or ‘nasty girls,’ ” remembers Barkey, who enlisted at age 17 in 1986. He is now first sergeant for the 118th Sapper Company that returned from Afghanistan in July.

“You took offense at it, but we got to do things the active-duty guys didn’t,” says Barkey. “We grew our hair longer.”

The pace and expectations were slower and a bit lower. “There was a lot of overweight soldiers in the guard back then who stuck around forever and talked big.”

Now, he says, “You can’t [be overweight] if you have to put on body armor.”

During the Cold War, the guard and reserves were seen as manpower that would only be used in the event of a third World War, says Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington.

Such notions began to change in the early 1990s, when the United States found itself with a smaller military but demands for troops in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo. “It had to rely more and more on the guard and reserves,” says Sharp.

The two major ground wars of the 21st century, though, have been transformative, in terms of who serves in the guard and reserves, their training — and, importantly, the perception of their value.

“If you talk to the people in the active-duty military and the guard and reserves, they’ll say … the guard and reserves have performed superbly in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Sharp.

“The fact they’ve been fighting together side by side for the better part of a decade has done a lot to wash away the antagonism.”

‘A pivotal part’ » Blake Bingham, the commander of the 118th Sapper Company, says the new guard is more professional. “Back in the day, the guard was the last to receive equipment or get training funds. Now it’s considered a pivotal part of the force.”

Bingham was a returned LDS Church missionary at Utah State University when the terrorists attacked. He had just joined the ROTC.

“I thought it was going to be part-time, kind of a hobby,” says the guard captain. “I would never have thought I would be an adviser for the Afghan Army or calling in air evac from a mountaintop for one of my soldiers.”

That the military now depends on reserves for such vital roles is evident in Todd Roe’s story.

He was 31, a mechanical designer several years out of the Air Force and the father of a 10-month-old girl when the terrorists struck. After much arm-twisting, he persuaded his wife he should enlist in the Navy, which needed intelligence specialists.

“When an attack like that happens on the United States, it’s home. It’s family,” says Roe. “I was raised understanding there’s some sense of duty to the country.”

He joined the Navy Reserves in 2003 and analyzed satellite imagery in Salt Lake City. He figured the closest he’d get to the Middle East would be on a ship.

But in 2006, he was asked to cross-train with the Army as a human intelligence collector. Soon, he was in Afghanistan and Iraq, interrogating combatants. That was in his first deployment. The next time, he was a combat adviser embedded with the Afghan army and police, trying to discover where bombs were planted, where coalition forces were at risk.

Roe was sent home after six months because proximity to explosives had rattled his brain and he had seizures. His attitude had soured, too, something he now realizes was part of post-traumatic stress, and he got out of the Navy. He works as a program manager at Hill Air Force Base. Although he is being treated for PTSD and his marriage is suffering, he says he would go back in a heartbeat.

“Even now I’d prefer to be over there,” says Roe.

‘He really loves it’

 Briana Bingham says it would be hard to walk away from the Guard, even though she and Blake now know the strains of balancing civilian and military life.

“It’s a tough decision for us for him to stay in,” she says. “He really loves it. They really take care of you. They really become a family.”

When the couple married in November 2003, Briana had no notion her husband might go to war. He graduated the next month and shipped out for basic training in January.

She put a life-size cardboard picture of him in an arena seat at Weber State University for her graduation, and by the time he returned from his first deployment to Afghanistan, she figured they had spent more time apart than together.

Their second daughter was born in January while Bingham was in Afghanistan. As company commander, he didn’t take leave until March.

Barkey, who served with Bingham, says a number of their soldiers are struggling two months after returning. A previous marriage ended after his first deployment several years ago when he refused to get out of the guard.

As Tarbet, the guard leader says, “ This is tough on families. It is just tough.”

Tarbet figures he has lost eight guardsmen during the two wars, including two who were working as contractors in war zones, two who died in helicopter accidents while training in Utah and one who committed suicide in Afghanistan.

And yet, some would-be guardsmen and women are turned away.

“I would have thought we would really, really be struggling to keep people in,” says Tarbet. “We have never had a higher retention rate.”

And as more of the guard opens up to women — the last are infantry units — Tarbet expects the number of guardswomen to grow. The Utah Guard is about 5 percent female, with the military as a whole at about 10 percent, Tarbet says.

‘Part of my life’

Lyndsey Prax was 18 when the terrorists struck, and she joined the Utah National Guard four years ago in part to better understand how the world has changed.

“I didn’t get the politics of it or why we were doing what we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she says. “Everybody seemed to be involved but me.”

A week after finishing basic training, she was deployed to Iraq, where she worked as a public affairs specialist.

“It’s part of my life now,” says Prax, a budget analyst for the guard while not on active duty. “I don’t want to do anything else.”

Sharp, of the Center for New American Security, says the guard and reserves are at another crossroads.

They have bought, with blood and tears, their role in combat, he says, and if decision-makers put them back on a shelf as “strategic” rather than operational, “They are probably going to be pretty unhappy because it’s not what they signed up for.”

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, decisions about the future of the guard and reserves will take years and will hinge on politics as well as policy and budget, he says.

Tarbet knows the guard is under the same budget cloud that covers all the military. But he notes that training and equipping a guard unit for deployment costs about a quarter of the expense to train and equip an active-duty unit.

“We think now, in these times … of constrained budgets and fiscal problems, that the guard is going to be a big part of the answer,” he says. “It’s been proven in 10 years that we can handle the combat.”