WASHINGTON – Revamping the Army National Guard training program so soldiers can spend more time at home will cost at least $128 million this year, and officials say they need nearly double that amount next year to properly train and equip their forces, The Associated Press has learned.
After struggling for more than a year and a half to condense the training process, Guard leaders have managed to chop months off the time citizen soldiers must spend away from their jobs and families due to deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Until early 2007, Guard combat brigades were training for up to six months — much of it away from home — and then would spend 12 months to 15 months in the war zone. The average time has been slashed to a bit more than 13 months, including about a month of training at home, another 40 to 70 days at the formal Army training center and roughly 10 months on the battlefront.
Spurred on by the Pentagon's promise that Guard deployments would be limited to one year, military leaders pledged to spread some of the required pre-deployment war preparation into the soldiers' routine weekend and weeklong training exercises each year.
That would allow soldiers to train, get required medical tests and do some paperwork while at home for much of the 12 months prior to heading to one of 10 mobilization centers for their final prewar training and equipment.
Depending on the size and type of unit, soldiers now are spending anywhere from two weeks to more than two months at the mobilization center, where they get their final, most up-to-date training. The last weeks could include the latest data on counterinsurgency efforts and methods to find and defeat roadside bombs, as well as instruction on new weapons or the latest mine-resistant vehicles.
The spike in spending will fund the hiring of roughly 2,000 trainers for the Guard who will be needed to ensure that the Guard members get as much training as they can during that one-year period before they mobilize. Already, according to Col. Rob Moore, chief of training for the Army National Guard, nearly 1,500 of those slots have been filled.
Moore said it will cost at least $128 million this year to hire the additional trainers and set up a small command unit in each state and U.S. territory. All those units, which comprise a small number of people who are in charge of the trainers, already have been created.
As of now, he said, many of the trainers are in place. But because the active duty Army also has units constantly training to go to war, there is a huge demand for trainers and the services have been competing for them.
In addition, the Guard has spent about $5 million to buy cell phones, laptop computers and other supplies for each state.
"We're really doing this on the cheap," said Moore, who added that the current funding only allows units to begin training for their deployment a year before they are scheduled to go. It would be better, he said, if they could begin two years before deployment.
To do the full training required, he said, would nearly double the cost to about $250 million.
Early last year, military leaders warned that making the new training program work would require time, money and much more coordination among beleaguered states that already desperately swap equipment to handle hurricanes and other disasters.
"It took a little while to get the plans out and just how we were going to do this," Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, the Director of the Army National Guard, said in an interview. Now, he said, the changes are moving forward well, and states "are gathering confidence in the program."
According to Brig. Gen. C. Stewart Rodeheaver, 75 days is about the longest training session needed at the mobilization centers, and that would involve either high-tech or full combat operations instruction for a brigade or aviation unit going to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Rodeheaver, who as deputy commander at First Army oversees the training and mobilization of Guard forces, said the average training time is 40 to 45 days. And some smaller, specialized units — such as a postal company — may require even less.
One of the biggest changes, Rodeheaver said, has been to improve coordination with the states to schedule training when the unit is all together and the equipment is ready.
In previous years, training had to be delayed or repeated at times because all the equipment or personnel slots were not filled.
"A year ago, we didn't even have the equipment to move to the units," Vaughn said in an interview in his Pentagon office. "Modern equipment was in such short supply." Now, while there is still not enough to fully equip every unit, there is enough for the training, he said.
Even now, there may be some variations in the states, as Guard units begin preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan in the next year.
In some states, said Vaughn, the adjutant generals want to spread the training throughout the year, adding a few days to the regular weekend stints and extending the annual two-week session to three weeks.
In other cases, however, he said employers have urged the military to consolidate the training and do one longer session just before the soldiers leave for the mobilization centers.
"Some employers want a clean break," said Vaughn, adding that they don't want to have their employees keep leaving and returning for chunks of time over a 12-month period.
As of Aug. 12, First Army, which has more than 8,800 trainers working at the 10 mobilization centers, has trained nearly 79,000 troops, of which nearly 60,000 are Army Guard and Reserve soldiers. The others include Air Force, Navy and Marine forces, as well as some 1,500 Canadian troops.
Officials said they expect to train another 23,000 by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. The mobilization centers are located across the country, including heavily used sites at Camp Shelby, Miss., and Fort McCoy, Wis. The trainers can provide between three to 10 weeks of training depending on the size and type of unit heading to the war front.