WASHINGTON – Members of the Army National Guard will be spending less time on the front lines in Iraq and more time in their off-duty jobs at home in coming years, according the Army's top two generals.
After a tough year in Iraq, where they provided nearly half the fighting force, the citizen soldiers will play a much smaller combat role for the remainder of the war, the officers said in interviews with The Associated Press.
The changes come as part of a reorganization proposal that includes a shift in some brigades from combat roles to support units. In addition, President Bush will propose shrinking the authorized size of the Guard and the Army Reserve — proposals that have triggered concern on Capitol Hill.
"It will set up a more predictable schedule for the National Guard brigades ... so that we're not calling them back and remobilizing them every two to three years. It will be more like one year in and six years out" for Guardsmen, said Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff.
During the past year, the Guard had seven combat brigades in Iraq, plus the headquarters of the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard. That accounted for nearly 50 percent of all U.S. combat forces in Iraq.
"That was a high water mark," Cody said. "That will not be repeated," barring an unforeseen emergency, he added.
Combining U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guard will represent only about 30 percent of the total this year, Cody said, with active forces making up the other 70 percent.
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said shifting some units from combat to support tasks will be a historic change in the way the Guard is organized. The aim, he said, is to better prepare Guardsmen for both their federal role as a combat and support force and their domestic job of responding to emergencies.
In the 2007 budget he presents Congress on Monday, Bush will propose to pay for a National Guard of about 333,000 citizen soldiers — the current total — rather than the 350,000 authorized by Congress.
The president also has proposed paying for less than the full authorized total for the Army Reserve.
Critics of Bush's proposals say they amount to an unwarranted and untimely shrinking of the Guard.
Schoomaker, speaking in his Pentagon office this week, acknowledged that the restructuring plan has touched a nerve in states where governors rely heavily on their Guard forces to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.
But, he said, the plan ultimately will produce a stronger and more modern force.
"Anybody who doesn't see that this is, in the main, a good news story doesn't get it," he said.
Cody said in a separate interview that unusually heavy use of the Guard in Iraq last year bought time for the active Army to reorganize itself to make more combat units available for fighting, while also giving soldiers more time at home between overseas tours.
The number of Army National Guard soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked at 69,416 last September; most are in Iraq.
In the current troop rotation to Iraq, only two Guard combat brigades will do one-year tours: the 48th from Georgia and the 28th from Pennsylvania.
There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, which the Pentagon has said will drop to about 130,000 by March. Cody said no decisions have been made beyond that. It is widely expected that Bush will approve significant additional cuts later in the year.
In some months last year, the Guard and Reserve accounted for more than half of all U.S. military deaths in Iraq. Since the start of the war in March 2003, the Guard has had 352 deaths in Iraq out of more than 2,240 U.S. fatalities.
The Army's reorganization plan calls for converting six of 28 Guard combat brigades to units that provide transportation, intelligence and other kinds of support. Schoomaker said that will better help the regular Army and governors because the support brigades will have skills needed in domestic emergencies.
State Guard officials were meeting with Schoomaker and other Army leaders this week at the Pentagon to work out their differences over the plan. Schoomaker suggested compromise was possible, saying the Army proposal was a "first cut."
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike are wary of plans to shrink or reorganize the Guard and Reserve, and could vote as early as this week to demand more details about the proposals.