WASHINGTON - Governors of both parties said Sunday that Bush administration policies were stripping the National Guard of equipment and personnel needed to respond to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, forest fires and other emergencies.
Tens of thousands of National Guard members have been sent to Iraq, along with much of the equipment needed to deal with natural disasters and terrorist threats in the United States, the governors said here at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
The National Guard plays an incredibly valuable role in the states. What we are concerned about...is that when our troops are deployed for long periods of time, and their equipment goes with them but does not come back, the troops are very strained, and they no longer have the equipment they were trained to use.
Gov. Mike Huckabee, R - Arkansas, chairman of the governors association
The National Guard, which traces its roots to the colonial militia, has a dual federal-state role. Governors normally command the Guard in their states, but Guard members deployed overseas in support of a federal mission are under the control of the president.
The governors said they would present their concerns to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday. In a preview of their message, all 50 governors signed a letter to the president opposing any cuts in the size of the National Guard.
"Unfortunately," the letter said, "when our National Guard men and women return from being deployed in foreign theaters, much of their equipment remains behind." The governors said the White House must immediately re-equip Guard units "to carry out their homeland security and domestic disaster duties."
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican and chairman of the governors association, said: "The National Guard plays an incredibly valuable role in the states. What we are concerned about, as governors, is that when our troops are deployed for long periods of time, and their equipment goes with them but does not come back, the troops are very strained, and they no longer have the equipment they were trained to use."
Nearly one-third of the American ground forces in Iraq are members of the Army National Guard.
This month the Pentagon backed away from a budget proposal to reduce the authorized strength of the National Guard to 330,000 soldiers, from 350,000.
"We have no intention of cutting the number of Guard or Reserve brigades, reducing the number of Guard or Reserve soldiers, or cutting the level of Guard or Reserve funding," said the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, a Republican, said Sunday that he was still "very concerned." The administration may have set aside the proposal on authorized strength, but it has not restored money to the budget to pay for 350,000 Guard members, he said.
In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said that "extensive use of the Guard's equipment overseas has significantly reduced the amount of equipment available to governors for domestic needs."
Since 2003, the report said, the Army National Guard has left more than 64,000 pieces of equipment, valued at more than $1.2 billion, in Iraq. The Army has not kept track of most of this equipment and has no firm plans to replace it, the report said.
Governor Kempthorne said the National Guard was bearing "a totally disproportionate share" of proposed cuts in the growth of the Army's budget over the next five years, even as the Guard's responsibilities at home were increasing.
Governors of both parties said a Pentagon plan to reorganize the Army National Guard would significantly weaken its ability to save lives and property at home.
After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, more than 40,000 Guard members helped evacuate storm victims, distributed food and water, provided emergency medical care, repaired homes and restored power.
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, a Democrat, said: "The Guard played an awesome role. We should be increasing the number of National Guard combat brigades, not reducing it."
Two other Democrats, Govs. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, said the strength and resources of Guard units in their states were being depleted.
"We are not only missing National Guard personnel," Ms. Sebelius said. "We are also missing a lot of the equipment that's used to deal with situations at home, day in and day out."
Despite assurances from top administration officials, Mr. Vilsack said, "many of us are very concerned about what we're hearing, that the Pentagon, the administration, might reduce the resources for the National Guard so they can redirect resources to pay for more boots on the ground, more full-time military."
David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, who heads the Government Accountability Office, said the governors had some basis for their concerns.
"The Army cannot account for over half the equipment that Army National Guard units have left overseas," Mr. Walker said. "And it has not developed replacement plans for the equipment, as Defense Department policy requires."
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