Commentary: Willing to serve, but make it equitable

AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- It has been several weeks since the news of the extension of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, was passed to soldiers here in Iraq. As a soldier I accept the extension as my duty. I enlisted, and re-enliste...

AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- It has been several weeks since the news of the extension of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, was passed to soldiers here in Iraq. As a soldier I accept the extension as my duty. I enlisted, and re-enlisted knowing full well what may be expected of me. I accept that fact and will carry on without complaint.

However, I am troubled by the fact that, when compared to the active duty, our benefits do not stack up to what has been asked of us in the past, present and what will be asked of us in the future. We carry the same, and in some ways more of a burden as our active duty counterparts, but do not enjoy the same benefits.

My unit, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry of the 34th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, is on its second deployment since 2003. In 2003 2/136 was mobilized for a 10-month deployment to Bosnia. We returned home in April 2004 and were mobilized again in October 2005 for our current Iraq deployment.

It is now 2007. We are on our third calendar year away from home and have been away from home for a part of every year since 2003. On top of this there is word of another deployment in 2008. With such a frequency of deployment it is difficult to carry on our lives while at home.

When our current tour of duty is complete, the 1/34th BCT will have spent 490 days in combat, exceeding the current record held by the 1st Armored Division, an active duty Army unit, by 35 days. At the end of its tour the 1/34th BCT will have spent a full 16 months in Iraq. When you add our six-month train-up, it brings our total time on active duty to over 22 consecutive months. That is 22 months away from friends, family and employers. As Gen. Pace said upon hearing of the length of our time of service, "That's bad."


Twenty-two months is a much greater length of time away from home than is required of any active duty Army or Marine Corps unit. Neither the active duty Army nor the Marine Corps have perversely long train-ups which, when added to their time in country, keep them away from their families for a great length of time. Active Army units spent 12 months away from their families. Marines spend six months away. They sacrifice, but do they do not sacrifice as the National Guard does.

While our full-time active duty Army and Marine counterparts miss first words, birthdays and anniversaries as well, we National Guardsmen have an additional stressor to deal with: our employers. We leave our jobs, hoping they will still be there when we get home.

Those of us between jobs find it better not to mention to potential employers that we are in the National Guard for fear of not being hired. A recent poll from the Stars and Stripes showed that 51 percent of employers would not hire a National Guardsman or Reservist because of the likelihood that that soldier would be deployed, thus placing the potential employer in a difficult manning situation. In addition, part-time soldiers who own their own businesses experience a very real hardship with some losing their business as a result.

I bring up these facts not to whine and fish for pity, but to illustrate the reality of our situation as citizen-soldiers.

A great deal has been asked of us and more will be asked of us in the near future and our benefits do not reflect the burden we carry. While the state and people of Minnesota have been extremely generous toward their soldiers, the federal government continues to treat Minnesota's soldiers like unwanted step-children by neglecting to give them the benefits that better reflect their role in today's military, that is as full-time, front-line soldiers who are used on a regular basis rather than sparingly.

The foremost example of the gap between active duty and National Guard/Reserve benefits is retirement. As National Guardsmen our retirement pay is pro-rated based on the number of days we serve. This is completely fair, but what is not fair is the fact that we are not eligible to draw retirement until the age of 60. An active duty soldier begins drawing retire-ment the day he is discharged.

If I retire at 40 I will go 20 years before I see a retirement check. That is 20 years of retirement I would have drawn were I an active duty soldier. The military asks the same, if not more of us than our active duty counterparts, yet they refuse to grant us the same benefits. This is unacceptable.

The bottom line is that we all knew what we were getting into when we enlisted. Many of us deal with these hardships with a bitter-sweet attitude, knowing that we must sacrifice in order to serve. After all, serving was our choice.


However, it was not our choice to be full-time soldiers, a capac-ity that we essentially fill for the military given the frequency of deployments and sheer numbers of National Guard and Reserve troops deployed across the globe at any one time.

If the military is going to continue to use the National Guard in an active duty capacity, it must increase our benefits to go along with the responsibility or there will be no National Guard for the federal and state governments to rely upon in times of crisis.

Minnesota National Guard Staff Sgt. Gregory Roberts of Bemidji is assigned to Able Company, 2/136 Infantry, stationed at Al Taqaddum, Iraq. The unit is now scheduled to return home in August.

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