Guard units stretched thin

Richard Lodge

In a roundabout way that even the most Machiavellian Bush administration official could not have imagined, the "war on terror'' has come to America's heartland.

Yes, there are many people who would count the Americans killed fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as victims in this ongoing war on terror.

But further evidence of the war's impact came last week, after an F-5 tornado destroyed the small town of Greensburg, Kan.

When Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius lashed out at the Bush administration for draining her state's National Guard troops and equipment off to the war in Iraq, she was echoing the concerns of almost every governor across the country.

Sebelius said the delay in bringing in troops and heavy equipment to help dig through the rubble of Greensburg resulted from at least half of the Kansas National Guard being deployed in Iraq. Maj. Gen. Tod {cq} Bunting, the Kansas Guard's adjutant general, told the New York Times this week the state Guard was down from the normal 660 Humvees to 350, and from 30 large trucks to 15, because of the overseas deployments.

That means, in a state the size of Kansas, there are fewer vehicles spread over a large area, making it harder to scramble them to the right places in an emergency.

In an interview Wednesday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick expressed his own concerns about each state's ability to handle a local disaster, given the high number of National Guardsmen and women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patrick noted that Massachusetts, with a regional Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, was in better shape than most because the stocks of vehicles and equipment are maintained at a higher level for FEMA.

But Patrick also noted that, like Sebelius, he had talked with many of his fellow governors this year who shared concerns over the drain on Guard personnel and equipment.

The Times also reported that all 50 governors signed a letter last year asking the president to immediately re-equip National Guard units returning from overseas.

In many cases, trucks and Humvees deployed to the Middle East and Iraq are left in-country, either for use by other troops or because the wear and tear from the war zone make it impractical to return them to the U.S. for further use.

After a brief war of words Tuesday between Sebelius and the White House, both sides backed down somewhat, with the Kansas governor saying she had enough equipment and personnel to handle the crisis in Greensburg, and the Bush administration acknowledging the governor had requested – and received - several items from the federal government to deal with the tornado's aftermath.

Although the tornado that ripped through Greensburg is devastating for that community, the death count and destruction pales in comparison to the destruction by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast and the tremendous flooding that swamped much of the city of New Orleans.

The slow response by FEMA and the folks in Washington is now well documented.

Reports out of Kansas point to a quicker response by FEMA for this latest disaster, which might mean there were lessons learned from the debacle in Louisiana.

But as members of the National Guard and Army Reserves serve and die overseas, the home front has been left short to deal with, and recover from, the natural disasters that come as surely as tornado season in the Midwest and hurricanes along our coastline.

As Kansans try to clean up from the tornado without their full complement of Guardsmen and woman, those part-time soldiers continue fighting the full-time war in Iraq.

Kansas National Guard members number among the thousands of Americans killed or wounded in the fighting. In fact, Army National Guardsmen and women account for about 20 percent of the 2,215 Army troops killed in Iraq.

When you add in members of the Air National Guard, Army, Navy and Marine Reserves, the total number of deaths comes to 553 out of the 3,381 Americans killed in Iraq as of this week, according to the Web site Of that total, 37 of the dead hailed from Kansas.

As the battle over war funding - and whether to set deadlines for troop withdrawals - continues in Washington, the impact of that war on the battlefield and on the homefront, continues.

Judging from the concerns raised by Gov. Sebelius this week over the diminished resources of the National Guard, the solution to this problem could be elusive and long term.

With apologies to Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We're in Iraq.

Richard Lodge is editor of The MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts, a GateHouse Media newspaper. His e-mail is