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Army Reserve nearly 'a broken force,' chief says

WASHINGTON -- The head of the US Army Reserve has sent a sharply worded memo to other military leaders expressing "deepening concern" about the continued readiness of his troops, who have been used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and warning that his branch of 200,000 soldiers "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

In the memo, dated Dec. 20, Lieutenant General James "Ron" Helmly lashed out at what he said were outdated and dysfunctional policies on mobilizing and managing the force. He complained that his repeated requests to adjust the policies to current realities have been rebuffed by Pentagon authorities.

The three-star general, who has a reputation for speaking bluntly, said the situation has reached a point where the Army Reserve is "in grave danger of being unable to meet" its operational requirements in the event other national emergencies arise. Insistence on restrictive policies, he continued, "threatens to unhinge an already precariously balanced situation in which we are losing as many soldiers through no use as we are through the fear of overuse."

His pointed remarks represent the latest in a rising chorus of warnings from military officers and civilian defense specialists that the strains of overseas missions are badly fraying the Army. The distress has appeared most evident in reservist ranks. Last month both the Army Reserve and the National Guard disclosed significant recruiting slumps.

Helmly's memo was addressed to General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, and was sent up the command chain through the office of General Dan McNeill, who oversees Army Forces Command. It surfaced yesterday in the Baltimore Sun.

A senior Army spokesman, Colonel Joseph Curtin, said Helmly's concerns were not new and were being taken seriously. "The Army is moving to resolve them," Curtin said, citing a task force that is looking at ways of improving benefits for reservists and of streamlining procedures for activating them.

On Capitol Hill, Helmly's memo drew expressions of surprise and alarm. Several lawmakers predicted that the general's blunt comments would fuel an already charged debate over whether the United States has enough forces in Iraq and enough in the Army generally.

"By consistently underestimating the number of troops necessary for the successful occupation of Iraq, the administration has placed a tremendous burden on the Army Reserve and created this crisis," said a statement released by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Armed Services Committee.

"The memo presents more questions than answers," said Representative Vic Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas, who deals with reservist issues in the House. "I think he's really making a plea to the Pentagon to change some of their practices or let him do some things he wants to do."

Helmly declined through a spokesman yesterday to discuss his memo, but he told the Sun on Tuesday that he had intended it to promote a frank exchange among Army leaders in advance of congressional hearings.

"The purpose of this memorandum is to inform you of the Army Reserve's inability . . . to meet mission requirements" associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, he wrote, "and to reset and regenerate its forces for follow-on and future missions."

"I do not wish to sound alarmist," he added. "I do wish to send a clear, distinctive signal of deepening concern."

Designed to fill key support roles during wartime, the Army Reserve has been heavily taxed by the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. About 50,000 Reserve members are on active duty, the majority of them in the United States, freeing up other forces for overseas assignments. But many Reserve troops are abroad -- 17,000 in Iraq and Kuwait, 2,000 in Afghanistan -- serving as military policemen, truck drivers, engineers, medics, and civil affairs specialists.

In many instances, the Reserve soldiers were plucked individually from their normal units and sent to round out other, active-duty ones. This practice, Helmly said, has "broken" some Army Reserve units.

Helmly also faulted a number of peacetime personnel policies that he said needed to change, among them, one that delays training of reservists who have returned from overseas. He complained as well that the Army has refused to exercise all its authority to compel certain Reserve soldiers to go on active duty. And he sounded especially incensed about the practice of paying volunteers an extra $1,000 a month, saying this sets a precedent and risks blurring the line between volunteer and mercenary.

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