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Injury rate for reservists on rise

WASHINGTON -- US Army reservists, pulled from everyday life to serve in Iraq, are suffering from a sharply disproportionate share of nonhostile injuries -- which include accidents, illnesses, and mental breakdowns -- as they adjust to the rigors of a long and unexpected tour in a hot, strife-ridden environment, according to a Globe analysis of Department of Defense figures.

Members of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, who account for about a quarter of the forces in Iraq, are not as well prepared as their full-time counterparts, either in terms of basic training or the physical and psychological stamina necessary for a long overseas deployment, officials said.

And the guerrilla nature of the conflict means that they are serving on the front lines.

"If you look at the reserves, they are usually civilians that have jobs back home, and now you take them away from their families and you put them in a foreign war where they are less equipped than active duty troops and don't have the combat training," said Colonel Juan DeRojas, a surgeon in the Army Reserve who returned from a tour of duty in Iraq in July.

DeRojas, who served in a field hospital 30 miles south of Baghdad, has seen the cost of the war up close.

He has seen the death and dismemberment, but also treated accidental injuries and witnessed illnesses, psychological problems, and infections. "We took care of a number of reservists," he said. "Many are saying, `I can't do this anymore.' "

Reservists generally train for no more than 39 days per year, while soldiers in the regular Army train constantly. And, in many cases, reservists train on equipment that is less up to date than that used by the regulars, officials said.

"You can only sustain so much training in 39 days," said Colonel Frank Grass, director of operations for the National Guard. He said reserves usually go through a crash training regime before being shipped to a conflict zone, but don't have the enough time to develop the levels of skills of the regulars.

The result is a far greater rate of injury outside the line of combat. The National Guard and Army Reserve -- collectively referred to as the "reserves" -- account for 27 percent, or about 35,000, of the roughly 130,000 US forces in Iraq. But they constitute a full 40 percent of the "nonhostile" injuries.

Of the 6,497 nonhostile injuries suffered in Iraq through Oct. 29, 3,897 were suffered by active duty soldiers, while 2,600 were suffered by reserves.

Among the nonhostile injuries or illnesses, according to the Defense Department: 14 percent required surgery; 12 percent were psychiatric; 10 percent were neurological; 7 percent were gynecological; 7 percent were cardiac; 7 percent were urological; 6 percent were gastrointerological; and 37 percent were labeled "assorted other," which could include accidents, heat stroke, and other injuries.

A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon does not break down the various injuries and ailments between reservists and regular Army. The specifics of individual cases are not made public, the spokesman said, out of privacy concerns.

Reservist officials in Iraq and Washington say the statistics reflect the increasingly heavy burden being placed on reservists. No members of the reserve forces were killed during major combat operations, as the active duty Army took the lead in routing the Iraqi military.

But since President Bush declared the combat phase over on May 1, and reserves have begun policing Iraq and providing transportation help, two dozen reservists have been killed and hundreds more injured by hostile fire.

Now, as the occupation enters its sixth month, the lines between combat and support troops are almost totally blurred.

"Everybody is on the front lines," said DeRojas, the Army Reserve colonel. Reserve troops manning checkpoints or driving convoys -- posts usually considered less dangerous than combat missions -- are as likely to be the targets of guerrillas as active duty forces in combat units, officials said.

"This is a new kind of war -- an urban style of war that we have yet to develop a doctrine for," said retired Major General Richard C. Alexander, president of the National Guard Association of the United States. The troops "find themselves in another setting that requires a horrendous adjustment to the circumstances."

John B. Conaway, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who was chief of the National Guard from 1990 to 1994, echoed that concern, saying, "It's a time in our history that we have never seen before."

From the end of the Korean War in 1953 until Sept. 11, 2001, reservists were called up for no more than six months at a time. Now, many of them are serving one-year tours in Iraq after already having completed long tours in Afghanistan, Kosovo, orelsewhere. Reservists account for 70 percent of all the US military police, virtually all civil affairs troops, as well as many transportation units.

The long deployments -- so long that some reservists are losing their jobs back home -- are taking a toll on many levels.

"The biggest issue we now hear is the extension of length of deployment and many of them not being psychologically prepared for that," said Dorothy Ogilvy-Lee, chief of family programs for the National Guard. "Families have been hit very hard."

Entering Iraq, many of the reservists apparently had visions of the 1991 Gulf War, when many were called up but soon came home, since the war went quickly and there was no occupation.

"I think that a lot of these soldiers thought they would go over and be home as quick as Gulf War number one," said Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana, who as a Army Reserve officer co-chairs the House Guard and Reserve Caucus. Now, he said, "Some of the family members and employers are saying, `Oh, my God, they're going to be gone a year.' "

But the concern raised most seriously in connection with the disproportionate percentage of injuries is training -- and whether reservists have been left without the skills and equipment needed to survive in Iraq.

Master Sergeant Michael P. Cline, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard, said he is concerned that reservists aren't trained on the most modern equipment, leaving them less prepared than the regulars to react to a crisis.

"We . . . normally survive on hand-me-down equipment from the active component," said Cline. He specifically cited Army guardsmen having older night vision gear, communications equipment, and helicopters.

After Sunday's attack on an Iowa National Guard helicopter that killed 15 service members, US Senators Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressing concern that some of the Guard helicopters are not equipped with the latest technology to counter missiles.

"We have asked our troops to leave their homes and their families and to put themselves in harm's way," said Durbin. "We owe it to them and their families to make sure that they are flying with equipment that provides them as much safety as possible."

Pentagon spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

Despite the difficulties they've encountered, reservists bring unique skills to their peace-keeping mission in Iraq. They come from every walk of American life -- from police departments to manufacturing plants and schools -- and make their communities work.

Now, their expertise is needed to help stabilize a country that has suffered 30 years of dictatorship and six months of guerrilla war.

Brigadier General John Kern, who until late last month was head of the 352d Civil Affairs Command in Iraq, was recently asked by the US governing authority to provide an officer to help establish a Ministry of Environment.

Kern produced a colonel who in his civilian life was an environmental attorney. "That's the kind of expertise that we were able to reach down and provide," Kern said. "You don't find that in an infantry division."

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