WASHINGTON – The Army Reserve (search) is sending to Iraq about 800 soldiers from a unit that normally trains reserve and active-duty soldiers in the United States and has never deployed overseas in the 45 years that it has been part of the Reserve.
Members of the Rochester, N.Y.-based 98th Division will begin heading to Iraq next month to help train the fledgling Iraqi army, and they will be there for 12 months, Army Reserve officials said Thursday.
Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, pointed to the highly unusual mobilization as an illustration of how part-time soldiers must get used to the idea that they can be called to active duty, even if they are members of a non-combat unit like the 98th.
Since word went out that the 98th was going to Iraq, "I've gotten cards, letters, e-mails (asking), `How can you do that?'" Helmly said, referring to reaction within the Reserve to mobilizing and sending to a combat zone a unit that does not have its own vehicles and weapons.
The 800 soldiers will form what Helmly called a provisional command, the Foreign Army Training and Assistance Command (search), operating under the direction of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who is responsible for building up Iraqi security forces so that U.S. forces can eventually go home.
Speaking more broadly of the changing nature of service as a part-time soldier, Helmly said the Army Reserve has yet to fully adapt to the demands of a global war on terrorism, even though half of its 205,000 members have been called to active duty since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We're at war, this is a hard war and we, frankly, inside the Army Reserve have been not properly prepared for it," he said, adding that he has seen some encouraging signs of progress.
Many members of the Army Reserve, like their fellow part-time soldiers in the National Guard (search), are not used to being mobilized for the kind of long and dangerous duty they face in Iraq.
"Every time I visit a unit I take about 45 minutes to an hour and try to talk to all of them and explain to them every initiative we have under way to properly prepare ourselves and bring the institution to a wartime footing, but it's hard," Helmly said Thursday in an interview with reporters.
The Army Reserve has about 38,500 on active duty now, and those in Iraq are serving 12-month tours, which is twice as long as mobilized Reserve members spend on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia and Kosovo.
"You must prepare yourself physically, mentally, spiritually," Helmly said he advises Reserve soldiers, "such that you are prepared for a call to active duty just as if you knew the hour and the day that it would come. That's a long-term change" from attitudes developed over decades.
For years the conventional wisdom among Army Reserve members was that they were unlikely to get mobilized, and if they did it would be for non-combat duty in a secure rear area, far from the fighting.
The war in Iraq, where no soldier is immune from attack, has shattered that belief.
Too often, Helmly said, he hears that members of a newly mobilized Reserve unit respond to the news of their activation by saying, "I didn't think it was going to happen to us," and they are not prepared.
"I frankly have started to put a boot up some people's fannies about getting everyone ready," he said.
Generally the Army Reserve's role is to provide support services like medical specialists, military police and truck drivers. The active-duty Army gets its backup combat troops mainly from the National Guard. In Iraq, however, danger haunts every soldier, regardless of role.
Helmly said driving trucks is one of the most hazardous occupations in Iraq. "Truck drivers and the MPs are front-line troops these days," he said.
As an illustration of that, the fatalities announced by the Pentagon on Thursday included Spc. Lauro G. DeLeon Jr., 20, of Floresville, Texas, of the Army Reserve's 644th Transportation Co. based in Beaumont, Texas. DeLeon was killed by a roadside bomb that exploded near his vehicle convoy on Sept. 8 near Balad, a major U.S. logistics base north of Baghdad.