WASHINGTON – The Army is forcing thousands of former soldiers back into uniform to ease the strain on the service of long military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And some say the move is the equivalent of a back-door draft.
Army officials on Wednesday announced that 5,674 former soldiers — mostly people who recently left the service and have up-to-date skills in military policing, engineering, logistics, medicine or transportation — will be assigned to National Guard (search) and Reserve units that are scheduled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. The first notifications are to be received July 6 and those units will deploy to Iraq.
They will be put on active duty for a minimum of 12 months and mostly likely serve for 18 months on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army said the Individual Ready Reserve (search) members who are recalled will be given at least 30 days notice to report for training.
The call-up is the first of its kind since the 1991 Gulf War, though several hundred people have voluntarily returned to service since the Sept. 11, 2001 (search) terror attacks. In many cases, the soldiers have been away from active duty for some two to three years.
Use of the plan was first approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon in January, Fox News has learned.
The reason behind the recall is the need for transportation specialists such as drivers and mechanics, logisticians and other combat services support soldiers, as well as military police and civil affairs specialists. Soldiers can petition for exemption based on medical or other limitations.
The Pentagon's policy is to not keep troops in Iraq or Afghanistan for more than 12 months.
Robert Smiley, the Army secretary's principal aide on troop training and mobilization, told a Pentagon news conference that more former soldiers, in addition to the 5,674, are likely to get called up next year.
Asked if the newly announced call-ups reflected poorly on the size of the Army or the quality of the long-range planning that went into the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, Smiley said: "No ... we don't think the Army is too small. This is good use of a manpower pool that is available to us. We could ask soldiers who have already been there to get up and go back, or we can tap this resource. This is good personnel management."
Col. Debra A. Cook, commander of the Army Human Resources Command, said although former soldiers in the reserve pool known as the Individual Ready Reserve are required to verify by mail every year that they are physically fit, many will be surprised to get called for Iraq duty.
"There's going to be soldiers who, yes, will be shocked," she said.
Raymond Robinson Jr., a senior personnel official at Army headquarters in the Pentagon, said many soldiers are from California and Texas.
"This is another indication of the urgent need to increase the size of the Army," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a sponsor of a Senate passed amendment that boosts the Army's size by 20,000. "The administration's assessment of the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq, fight the War on Terror and maintain the nation's military commitment around the world has been woefully inadequate."
People in the IRR have in most cases completed their required four years of active duty, but their obligation to the Army is not completed until another four years have passed, when they are required to do Guard or Reserve stints. Some service members join Reserve units as soon as they are released from active duty. Those who do not go into the IRR pool are eligible for call-up for the full four years post-active duty. Once their eight years of required service is complete, they are discharged.
A 'Pseudo Draft?'
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that dipping into the Individual Ready Reserve amounts to conscripting people to fight in Iraq.
"If there was any doubt that this administration was conducting a pseudo-draft, this call-up should dispel that doubt," Larsen said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., President Bush's presumed opponent in the fall election, has made similar complaints about the administration's use of Reserves and National Guardsmen. "A few weeks ago, the Pentagon announced an expansion of the stop loss program, effectively forcing thousands of troops to extend their deployments. At the time, that move was called a back-door draft. Today that back-door swung wide open," Kerry's national security adviser, Rand Beers, said in a statement.
"The fact is that this involuntary call-up is a direct result of the Bush administration's diplomatic failure to get real international help in Iraq. The situation on the ground in Iraq calls for more than a token training force from NATO. We need combat-ready troops from NATO to stand side by side our men and women on the front lines."
Kelly Taylor, a 28-year-old IT consultant who used to serve as a Marine corporal, said that activating the IRR, in his mind, is the "last step before a full-blown draft is implemented."
"A draft is not my concern though," he added. "As former military, I believe in doing what needs to be done to defend my country and keep it free. If a draft is required to carry out the mission, so be it."
Taylor did, however, say he was concerned that the military is spreading itself too thin.
"Why else would the Army need to activate inactive reserves?" he said. "Iraq is not our only threat but it seems that this one country is obligating our entire force."
The Army is so stretched for manpower that in April it broke a promise to some active-duty units, including the 1st Armored Division, that they would not have to serve more than 12 months in Iraq. It also has extended the tours of other units, including some in Afghanistan.
In January, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld authorized the Army to activate as many as 6,500 people from the Individual Ready Reserve, drawing on presidential authority granted in 2001.
Not until May did the Army begin looking in detail at the available pool of people.
At that point some Army recruiters caused a controversy when they contacted members of the Individual Ready Reserve and suggested they would wind up in Iraq unless they joined a Reserve or Guard unit. Some complained that they were being coerced to transfer into a Reserve unit.
In addition to the IRR soldiers called up, some 4,000 Guard and Reserve soldiers from other units that aren't being deployed have been shifted to soon-to-deploy units to fill needed spots.
The total National Guard and Reserve on active duty is now to 156,236.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.