Sending In the Reserves

Stretched thin—and past the breaking point—with jittery Guard troops and reservists in Iraq

And everyone talks about Kuwait, Kuwait.

Before heading into Iraq, most soldiers —and all Guardsmen—undergo varying periods of training in Kuwait, usually at Camp Buehring. Wagoner says this training paints a false portrait of Iraq as a country where the dead are piled on the streets, gunfire erupts from every darkened window, and Americans who venture off their bases immediately come under attack by rockets and suicide bombers. "They make them paranoid," Wagoner says.

This paranoia is in evidence as the convoy crawls out of the base's front gate, stopping briefly to let its handful of gunners shoot two or three rounds into a sand berm—a "test fire," they call it. Specialist Ernest Benjamin, 51, of New York City pulls the trigger on his .50-caliber and holds it, spraying rounds up and down the berm. "I live for this," he says, so high on adrenaline —the chemical product of fear—that you can almost smell it.

Sergeant Robbie Godsey prepares for a patrol in Diyala Province.
photo: David Axe
Sergeant Robbie Godsey prepares for a patrol in Diyala Province.

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  • Less than an hour later, the convoy pulls into its destination. No shots were fired. No suicide bombers took interest. Iraqis waiting in line for gasoline in downtown Tikrit waved as the trucks sped past. Climbing out of his vehicle, Wood looks flushed. "That wasn't so bad," he says.

    Sergeant John Branick, a 52-year-old mailman back home and a driver here, shakes his head and says, "What I couldn't believe was all the people around." Branick sees all Iraqis as a threat—and today, the threat was everywhere. "I mean, they were just out there."

    Major Michael Lyons, 40, a New Jersey resident who is Switlik's second in command, says his troops are just "green"—inexperienced—but he says that's a problem not only with Guardsmen, but with any soldier new to Iraq. He says that may have been a factor in the January 29 shooting.

    Besides, he adds, the average Guardsman has more experience in the military—if not in actual combat—than the average active-duty soldier. Many older soldiers spend the last years of their enlistments or commissions in the reserves, where they train only a few weeks per year and can devote themselves to new civilian careers and to their families.

    But tactical skills—like knowing when to shoot and when not to—decay quickly if you don't exercise them every day, says Captain Stephen Short, 41, a Texan who's an officer with the Tennessee-based 467th Engineer Battalion, 50 of whose 115 members were recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve, some after years of civilian life. Short himself came from the IRR. "Tactically," he admits, "we're at a disadvantage."

    This disadvantage can be fatal to innocent people caught in reservists' crosshairs.

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