Keep our citizen-soldiers focused

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 2004


A recent article in the “Washington Post” on National Guard training operations at Fort Polk brought to the nation’s attention what Louisianians already know – that Fort Polk is the premiere light-armored and infantry training facility in the world.

About 4,000 soldiers from the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment, which is now in Iraq, call Fort Polk home. Tens of thousands of reservists and guardsmen have undergone training there before heading to Iraq or Afghanistan. Fort Polk is the place where Generals Eisenhower and Patton laid out plans for World War II, and it continues to be vital to our nation’s security and defense.

Even beyond the work and training happening at Fort Polk, guardsmen and reservists are a part of virtually every community in our state. Consider this: so far, more than 6,000 of Louisiana’s 25,000 guardsmen and reservists already have been activated, and 3,800 more were recently placed on alert for possible activation later this year. This continuing activity for our citizen-soldiers brings up an issue that should be of concern to every American: our military’s ever-increasing reliance on the guard and reserve will stretch them perilously thin, both professionally and personally.

More than 325,000 guardsmen and reservists have been activated since Sept. 11, 2001, and the defense department expects them to comprise about 40 percent of our total force in Iraq by May 1. No one should worry about reduced mission competencies, but we should be concerned about a retention crisis for guardsmen and reservists.

Failure to keep these expert citizen-soldiers in our armed forces will weaken our military. At a time when many are returning to Iraq and Afghanistan for a second and third time, we must be mindful of families at home suffering from lost civilian incomes. In fact, 41 percent of guardsmen and reservists face pay reductions while activated.

We should reward employers who fill in this pay gap, and encourage more to do so, which is why I will be proposing a 50 percent tax credit for employers who continue to pay civilian salaries to activated guardsmen and reservists. Our troops in the field should be able to focus on the war, not whether bills have been paid at home.

MARY LANDRIEU represents Louisiana in the United States Senate.