WAR COMES HOME REVISION - DAY 1 - Profile of a soldier: War on Terror brings more volunteers, maturity into military ranks

Dana Heupel

REVISION NOTE: This story and graphic have been revised to include new numbers released by the Pentagon Tuesday evening.

WAR COMES HOME: Profile of a soldier

Note to editors:  Branches/enticement sidebar goes with this story as well as a graphic comparing numbers in Vietnam to numbers in Iraq. In addition for day 1, please find the Contracts stories, Tammy Duckworth story, a photo of her seeing her husband off, a death-toll lead-in and a graph, naming all of those lost in the war as of this date.

See related photos

This is not your father's war.

Illinois National Guard soldiers who are likely to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan range in age from 17 to 64. One in seven is a female. Some are high school dropouts, but a larger number are college graduates or hold advanced degrees.

And unlike the Vietnam War, where joining the National Guard was likely to keep you out of combat, 10 Guard units from Illinois and others across America make up about one-fourth of the fighting force in the War on Terror. That number is down from one-third, according to new Pentagon numbers released Tuesday.

"Following the Vietnam War, the U.S. military did not want to be in a situation again where it was fighting a war without national support," says John Lynn, a military historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The notion was that if you create a military that requires the mobilization of the Guard, then you require that the war has national support before you fight it," he says.

In the Vietnam era, "you had people being compelled to go to war. That fueled much of the war resistance," Lynn says. Now, "people wouldn't mobilize the Guard unless they were in support of the war."

"The key thing that we found out between Vietnam and subsequent wars," agrees Lt. Col. Alicia Tate-Nadeau, director of public relations for the Illinois Army and Air National Guards, "was that whenever you call out the National Guard, you're employing the will of the people because we're a community-based organization. That means your next-door neighbor very likely could be somebody who's in the National Guard."

During the draft-era Vietnam War, the average age of combat troops was 19. In the volunteer military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's 26, according to U.S. Senators Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. For National Guard members, it's 32.

"In Vietnam, they were a whole lot younger," says Jerry Lay, a retired Army National Guard pilot who flew helicopter missions in both Iraq and Vietnam. "The pilots are a whole lot longer in the tooth in Iraq."

Lay, 58, retired in March from F Company of the Peoria-based 106th Aviation Regiment to his home near Minonk in central Illinois. He says there wasn't much difference in the technical skills of pilots in the two wars, but maturity does bring an ability to handle pressure.

"We had a lot more age under our belts over in Iraq and a lot more diversified experience as far as the civilian world goes," he says. "In my unit, we were National Guard, and the diversity there amounted to people who knew how to run businesses, some of them were corporate executives, some of them worked for the utilities – they were electricians – some of them were piano players, you had all kinds."

When he was in Vietnam, Lay says, "most of us were in our early 20s, just out of high school ... and they had no idea what they were going to do when they grew up."

With maturity comes a certain attitude.

"You don't get intimidated as quickly – it's kind of like being older and grumpier," Lay says about the more mature pilots in Iraq. "In Vietnam, a lot of us were kids over there. We'd been used to burning our tires and having fun on the streets, and the next thing you know, we're over there flying in combat.

"But I'll tell you what," he says. "The people I flew with in the National Guard would have fit in just perfect in Vietnam. Even though there was an age difference in the average age of the crews, there was a maturity level that had already been gained (in Iraq)."

Lynn says, however, that older veterans bring a different set of challenges from those faced in Vietnam.

"I think that age has a lot to do with the problems the Army's facing in terms of deployment," Lynn says. "You're dealing with people who are doing multiple deployments, who have families, who have every expectation of having a life besides the military. And yet, you're rotating them through so much that they have precious little time to have any kind of life or family."

Lynn, who is faculty head of the university's ROTC program, as well as a professor of history, believes today's military, with older Guard members and reservists, proved early on in the War on Terror that it "is as able, or more able, than it's ever been" in conventional combat, but the tenor of the battles has since changed.

"We've rebuilt a military which would be really excellent for fighting a conventional war but doesn't think much about insurgencies," Lynn says. "And now, we're fighting an insurgency."

Part of the battle in Vietnam was quelling insurgencies, he says, but, mostly, American and South Vietnamese troops conducted conventional warfare against the North Vietnamese military.

"Now, it's all an insurgency," Lynn says, which requires skills more akin to police officers than combat soldiers.

As of mid-year, 10 Illinois Army Guard units – with about 650 soldiers – were deployed in the Middle East or headed there, along with about 180 Air Guard troops. They came from units all across Illinois: transportation companies from Streator and Delavan; medical teams from suburban North Riverside; military police from Bloomington. Infantry, maintenance, aviation and support troops from units as far north as Chicago and as far south as Mattoon.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 9,000 Army Guard troops from Illinois have been deployed for one or more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. That total is 86 percent of the Illinois Army Guard members during that period, according to figures from the state National Guard headquarters in Springfield. More than 3,700 Illinois Air Guard members also have served in the Middle East. The Air and Army Guard have about 13,500 members between them.

That contrasts with Vietnam, where nationally, only about 18,000 National Guardsmen served in Southeast Asia, mostly in support roles. Numbers for Illinois Guard members who served in Vietnam were not immediately available, although at least one, the 126th Supply and Service Company based in Quincy, was deployed in Vietnam for just under a year in 1968-69, where it provided food and supplies to more than 100 combat units, according to the Illinois State Military Museum.

Numbers of regular and reserve troops from Illinois who have been deployed are not immediately available, although the U.S. Department of Defense does track troops from Illinois military bases. Since 9/11, more than 7,700 service members from bases in Illinois have served in the conflict.

Unlike the Vietnam War, the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan comprises only volunteers. In Illinois, 120,578 men were drafted to serve 24 months during the Vietnam era, July 1, 1963-Dec. 31, 1972, according to the Selective Service system.

Lay was drafted into the Vietnam War and spent 7 1/2 months in Southeast Asia – his 12-month tour ended when he was wounded by enemy fire.

Unlike Iraq, where he had trained with his unit for years before it was deployed, when Lay arrived in the combat area in Vietnam, he was assigned to a unit with troops he had never met.

"You made bonds, but not real tight bonds," says Lay, who saw more than half the soldiers from his living quarters killed during his tour in Vietnam. "I didn't get to know the people – I didn't get to know them from back home ... I just knew them by acquaintance and mission, although we got tight real fast."

In Iraq, where Lay spent 14 1/2 months flying cargo missions in a Chinook helicopter, "the big difference I found was that by going to war with a unit ... I knew all of these people before I left. They were friends -- some of us had even worked together --  and we'd known each other, some of us, for over 20 years."

"We knew each other's personalities and capabilities a lot better than I knew of the people in Vietnam," he says, adding he believes the experience of working as a cohesive group is why his National Guard unit's term of service was extended five times in Iraq.

It is not unusual for Air Guard units to serve multiple tours, Tate-Nadeau says. Air Guard members serve only four-month rotations in the Middle East and often are called back for multiple tours.

But so far in the Army Guard, she says, "of the 120 different types of units we have, we're maybe talking about five to seven" that have done second tours, she says, adding that exact numbers are not immediately available.

Specialty units with few members are often needed, "so they're used over and over," Tate-Nadeau says. Examples of those are Guard special forces or Army liaison units.   

Since Vietnam, Tate-Nadeau says, the national strategic military plan has designated the National Guard as a key component of any war effort.

"We have moved from a strategic reserve to a response force," she says. "The Guard is an equal player in all of our capabilities in the military."

Dana Heupel can be reached at 788-1518 or dana.heupel@sj-r.com.