The deployment comes at a time when Iowa National Guard units have been stretched thin, placing stress on Iowa’s civilian soldiers and families. “Six years of war and more than 10,000 mobilized soldiers and airmen leaves no doubt we are an organization that is stretched and stressed,” Iowa National Guard Adjunct General Ron Dardis said in his “Condition of the Guard” address to the General Assembly in February.
“We see it in the faces of our warriors sent off on their second, and in some cases, third deployments since 9-11; we see it in our families, asked to endure lengthy and in some cases repeated separations; and we see it in returning soldiers and airmen, struggling to reintegrate with their families and routines of their daily lives,” Dardis said.
“Ladies and Gentlemen: this is what keeps me awake at night. I worry so much for the health and well-being of our soldiers and airmen and their families,” Dardis said. “We are trying to assist in every way possible and yet it never seems like enough.”
The Des Moines-based fighter wing is no stranger to flying in the Middle East region. About 400 members of the unit were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2005 to launch F-16 missions over Iraq, and the unit was deployed six times to Turkey and Kuwait between 1992 and 2002 to patrol "no-fly" zones set up over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from the Baghdad government led by Saddam Hussein.
In their upcoming deployment, the airmen of the 132nd Fighter Wing will launch F-16 aircraft over Iraq to attack enemy forces and search for improvised explosive devices, Lt. Col. James Freese, the wing's executive officer, said in a statement. The Iowa Guard's F-16 aircraft are armed with radar-guided missiles, heat-seeking missiles and laser-guided bombs. The detachment headed to the Gulf includes pilots, mechanics, and specialists in aviation electronics, weapons and other technical areas.
"We've been gearing up for this for quite some time, at least two or three months. We are fully trained and ready to go do it," Tech. Sgt. Todd Fee, 33, a weapons systems specialist, told the Des Moines Register.
About 1,000 members of the Iowa National Guard are now on active duty. The number includes about 550 in Iraq, 50 in Afghanistan, 330 in Kosovo and 90 in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, about 11,000 Iowa Guard members have been on active duty.
“We are going to do what we are asked to do, and hopefully come home safely,” Staff Sgt. Jacob Hermanson, an F-16 crew chief, told the Register. He said he expects to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Iraq.
Iowa Delegation Steps up Efforts to Give Guard Greater Voice
Recognizing the strain the multiple deployments have placed on civilian soldiers, members of the Iowa delegation, except Republican Rep. Steve King, sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, asking them to enhance the functions of the National Guard Bureau so that the National Guard has a voice in decisions made by the Pentagon leadership.
“As you well know, the National Guard is serving our country at an unprecedented level,” the delegation wrote in the letter. “Lengthy and multiple deployments are placing great strains on National Guard troops and families, as well as on National Guard equipment and readiness levels.”
Moreover, the delegation highlighted the National Guard’s shifting role from a strategic reserve to operational. We are concerned that Pentagon policies and culture have not shifted accordingly,” the delegation wrote. “Unfortunately, while National Guard soldiers are increasingly being utilized along with active duty forces, we have seen the Pentagon often make decisions that directly impact the National Guard without properly consulting the National Guard or incorporating their requests.”
Last year, Congress passed the National Guard Empowerment Act, which included a number of provisions that would ease the strain on state Guard units, members and their families. Moreover, Congress has proposed a bill, the National Guard Empowerment and State-National Defense Integration Act of 2008, which would address other provisions not included in last year’s bill.
Some key provisions of the latter bill include: making the chief of the National Guard Bureau a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as designate several key Air Force and Army positions for National Guard members, give the National Guard a formal role in identifying equipment needs, and protect the National Guard’s lead role in domestic response.
To help illustrate the delegation’s concerns, the delegation used the recent deployment of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry of the Iowa National Guard to highlight the disconnect between the DOD and the National Guard, and of the need for reform. The 133rd was deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2006 and was originally scheduled to return home in April 2007, but had its tour of duty extended as part of last year’s troop surge. When the Pentagon lengthened their tour of duty, the Guard members learned of this extension through the media and family members, instead of through the proper chain of command.
“This improper notification caused much unneeded stress and anxiety for them and their families,” the delegation wrote. “Currently, members of the 133rd, along with National Guard soldiers from other units, are still waiting to receive the Post Deployment & Mobilization Respite Absence benefit that they have been promised by the DOD. It has been over six months now since the last affected Iowa National Guard unit returned home from Iraq, and the Pentagon has still not made a decision about how to pay these troops for this benefit that they have been promised.”
Moreover, the delegation is concerned that the Pentagon may ignore requests from the National Guard that troops be paid in a lump sums, but instead require the National Guard to bring troops back onto active duty and give them days off. “We are troubled by this, because we have heard concerns from the National Guard that days of paid leave will be less beneficial to troops than a one-time payment, and that bringing troops back onto active duty will be an administrative burden for National Guard leadership and will be disruptive for demobilized troops,” the delegation wrote.
“Our National Guard members are going above and beyond the call of duty in the War on Terror,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Senate National Guard Caucus, said in a statement. “They deserve a seat at the table with all the branches of the military.”