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In Afghanistan, Reservists' Duties Expand

Military: Americans who were activated make up about a quarter of the U.S. force in the Asian nation. Their families and finances are on hold.

September 18, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — He can handle the monotony, deal with the heat and dust, and dodge the scorpions and bloodsucking camel spiders. It's the uncertainty that bothers Maj. Valvincent Reyes.

Reyes, an Army reservist who is a Los Angeles County probation officer in civilian life, was activated in June and feels proud of his role in the war effort here--screening soldiers for combat-related stress disorders.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 370 words Type of Material: Correction
Reservist--A story Wednesday in Section A about U.S. reservists serving in Afghanistan misstated the civilian employer of Maj. Valvincent Reyes. He is a parole agent with the California Youth Authority.

But Reyes doesn't know when he'll be reunited with his wife and three children in Torrance. He's already missed three birthdays and may be absent for his older daughter's high school graduation in the spring.

"In the back of our minds--we know we're always helping others, and we're wondering who is going to help us," said Reyes, who is attached to the Army Reserve's 113th Medical Company. "Our families want to know more about our length of time here."

When they joined the reserves, most of the men and women here did not expect that they would be sent thousands of miles away for as long as two years. But in today's era of a slimmed-down military and greater global commitments, middle-aged and middle-class Americans increasingly are being separated from spouses and children for extended overseas duty. They often serve longer abroad than full-time soldiers.

Reyes' concerns are typical among the 2,000 activated reservists and National Guard troops serving at this wind-blown military base in the desert north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Though proud to be serving, they fret over family, finances, jobs and the length of their tour.

By filling support functions, reservists do more than grease the wheels of the base machinery. They are its wheels. Reserve units sort mail, treat and transport the wounded, build barracks and arrange the installation's complex supply logistics. All told, reservists represent about a quarter of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

It's not that reservists are surprised to have been called up. Given the military's increased reliance on its 1.25 million reservists, many knew that it was just a matter of time. A possible U.S. military campaign against Iraq has only increased the odds.

"Reserves are now 80% of the medical assets of the U.S. Army," Reyes said, "so we were primed to come after 9/11. We knew we'd be called up."

What they didn't know was for how long.

"I came thinking I'd be here only six months, and now I'll probably be extended," said Sgt. Ricardo Ramirez of La Puente, who arrived in Afghanistan on July 11. His 109th Army Veterinarian unit tests food for possible spoilage and cares for bomb-sniffing dogs. Ramirez said the uncertainty sometimes causes his girlfriend back home to cry when they talk on the phone.

He hasn't even told his mother that he is in Afghanistan. She thinks he's elsewhere in the region.

Whether in war or peacetime, reservists said, when they've been called up it has usually been for an average of about 6 1/2 months.

But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon has invoked rules that permit it to keep reservists on active duty for as long as two years, and the individual services have begun invoking that option.

Sgt. Jason Clifford of Atlanta, part of the 310th Chemical Company, was called up last Oct. 10 and has recently received notification that he has been extended for a second year.

"When I signed up, I thought, well, the most I'll do if there is a war is six or seven months," he said. "But I never planned on two years."

The military's reliance on part-time forces has been increasing since the late 1980s, when Pentagon planners foresaw tighter budgets after the Cold War ended. The total of reserve and guard units is now not much less than the 1.4 million full-time soldiers.

The military may be risking losing reservists by stretching their active-duty stints--and their patience, said Jay Farrar, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said reenlistment data he has seen suggest that reservists are already leaving the ranks because of the added time commitment. The U.S. military can ill afford losing reservists. Despite their "weekend warrior" image, Farrar said, reserve units are consistently more efficient and cohesive than the regulars.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking said this month that each of the reserve branches is on track to meet its enlistment goals.

Many reservists, including Reyes, suffer no financial hardship because their employers keep their jobs open and make up the difference between their civilian and military wages.

Spc. 4 Nikki Prodromos of the 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment is not so lucky. She had to shut down her cleaning business, give up an apartment she loved and put her possessions in storage--an expense the Army won't reimburse.

"I hated letting my employees go. Good ones are hard to find. And I'm now making a third as much as I did with my business," said Prodromos, who is divorced and lives in Atlanta.

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