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State's National Guard May Be Getting Spread Thin

L.A.'s blackout focuses attention on whether there are enough troops to handle an emergency.

September 26, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When the lights went out in Los Angeles two weeks ago, one day after a purported Al Qaeda terrorist threat to the city, concern quickly spread to California National Guard headquarters here.

With more than 25% of its troops deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. Gulf Coast, state National Guard leaders prepared to mobilize even more soldiers for law enforcement duties in California's largest city.

"We were postured to respond quickly if needed," said Col. David Baldwin, California National Guard operations director. There was no need, however, as the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which cited multiple errors and lack of communication as causes of the blackout, restored electricity to most of the city in less than two hours.

But the power break gave a brief scare to those who worry that the National Guard, already experiencing a decline in recruitment, risks losing its capacity for emergency service in a state prone to natural and man-made disasters.

"We can only spread our forces so thin without endangering the safety net," said Assemblyman Tom Umberg, (D-Anaheim), who is also a colonel in the Army Reserve.

"Until someone can predict earthquakes, fires and floods accurately," Umberg said, "the Guard is a critical element in the event of a state emergency."

In early August, Umberg and fellow Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) asked California's state auditor to investigate whether the Guard has enough troops to meet state and federal demands.

State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), meanwhile, is conducting a budget subcommittee investigation of the Guard, including allegations that the state's Military Department has inflated the number of available troops. Dunn contends that the Guard ranks include "a significant number of ghost positions" listed by the department in order to obtain extra funding.

Dunn, who estimates that the Guard's troop strength is several thousand fewer than listed, plans hearings to probe this and other issues.

Concern among state officials increased after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, resulting in the mobilizing of Guard units from all 50 states, including nearly 1,000 soldiers from California.

In fact, the critical role played by more than 55,000 Guard troops along the Gulf Coast underlines the dilemma faced by the Bush administration and California officials as they attempt to balance the extraordinary overseas demands on the state militias in Iraq and Afghanistan with their traditional role responding to domestic emergencies.

Military analysts argue that the double duty -- foreign and domestic -- undermines the "citizen soldier" principle that has characterized the National Guard since the American Revolution. State leaders worry that the changing role compromises the Guard's ability to respond to natural disasters and civil unrest at home. Soldiers say the mix of long overseas tours and disaster duty breaks down family structure and shatters civilian careers.

"The Iraq campaign shows that we are misusing the National Guard by substituting them for what are classic active-duty roles," said University of North Carolina history professor Richard Kohn.

The National Guard, although it has federal responsibilities in the case of national emergency, is different from the federal armed forces on several levels. The Guard in each state reports to its governor, who can order it into action for emergencies. It handles its own recruiting and promotion system. It is also the only military component whose members can, under U.S. law, carry weapons and conduct law enforcement within the country without a presidential order or congressional act.

This distinction was clear in New Orleans, where troops from the regular Army 82nd Airborne Division were sent to help but were not permitted to carry loaded weapons. Only Guard troops could do that.

For half a century before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the National Guard was rarely tapped for long-term overseas missions, concentrating its efforts instead on natural calamities and social unrest, including the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which 12,000 Guard soldiers were deployed.

But faced with an insurgent resistance in Iraq much greater than anticipated, the Pentagon has depended on use of National Guard forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to a degree not seen since the Korean War.

National Guard Bureau leadership in Washington insists that the expanded role is just what the 436,000-troop National Guard needed and that it is more than up to the task. Reacting to reports that heavy deployments in Iraq had affected response along the Gulf Coast, National Guard chief Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum issued a strong statement.

"The fact that National Guard units were deployed in Iraq at the time of Katrina," Blum said, "did not lessen the Guard's ability to respond."

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