If the United States is unable to recruit significantly more international troops or quell the violence in Iraq in the next few months, it could trigger an exodus of active and reserve forces, the head of the U.S. Army Reserve said Monday.
Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the 205,000-member Army Reserve, said he and other Pentagon leaders will be monitoring retention rates closely next year, when problems could begin to become apparent for full-time and part-time soldiers coming off long tours of duty in Iraq.
"Retention is what I am most worried about. It is my No. 1 concern," Helmly told USA TODAY's editorial board. "This is the first extended-duration war the country has fought with an all-volunteer force."
Helmly described the war on terrorism as an unprecedented test of the 30-year-old all-volunteer military. Historically, he said, the National Guard and Reserve were designed to mobilize for big wars and then bring soldiers home quickly.
Today, he said, they have "entered a brave new world" where large numbers of troops will have to be deployed for long periods.
Counting training time and yearlong tours in Iraq, some Army Reserve soldiers could be mobilized for 15 months or more. Helmly described the situation facing soldiers in Iraq as "stressed" but said he could not characterize it as at a "breaking point."
The stresses facing the nation's reservists were demonstrated again this week when the National Guard announced it had alerted a combat brigade from Washington state that it could be sent to Iraq next year if a third block of international troops cannot be recruited to join the British and Polish-led divisions now in Iraq.
Guard officials said Monday that the 5,000-member 81st Army National Guard brigade from Washington state has been notified that it could be called to active duty.
Helmly said a huge factor in Iraq will be the Pentagon's ability to train an Iraqi army and security force.
The Defense Department recently announced plans to accelerate the development of an Iraqi army, pushing the goal from 12,000 troops to 40,000 troops in the next year.
The Army National Guard and Army Reserve have about one-fourth of their troops — nearly 129,000 soldiers — on active duty.
The active-duty Army and the Army Reserve both met their recruiting goals for the fiscal year that ends today. The Army National Guard, however, is expected to fall about 15% short of its recruiting goal of 62,000 soldiers.
Although the Guard and Reserve say their retention rates have not suffered this year, the figures could be misleading. Under an order known as "stop loss," soldiers on active duty are prohibited from leaving the service until their tours end.
Active-duty and Reserve commanders fear that when U.S. soldiers on yearlong rotations come home next year, many will choose to leave the service.
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