tampabay.com

Call for more troops unsettles families

A new policy could send more Florida National Guard and Reserve units to Iraq.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published January 17, 2007


The conversations have taken place around dinner tables and in kitchens and late at night when couples lie in bed, wondering what comes next.

Last week, a day after President Bush called for an additional 21,500 troops in Iraq, Pentagon officials announced a change in policy to allow shorter and more frequent callups of the National Guard and Reserves.

The change meant units that already served a tour in Iraq might be pressed into action again. It also meant a new round of waiting and worrying in homes from Pompano Beach to Pensacola.

"I really, really do not want him to go again," Ana Gonzalez, 22, said of her husband, Sgt. Cesar Garcia, a member of the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry, which served in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. "I'd be very upset. I'd be very angry with the government. The war has gone on so long."

The Gainesville couple has talked about starting a family, and Garcia, 24, is due to graduate from the University of Florida in December. Another deployment would delay those goals, Gonzalez said.

And yet the worry that has crept into so many military homes seems offset both by a sense of duty and the hope that no Florida troops will be called back anytime soon.

"We serve in a volunteer army," said Michael Scionti, 38, an Army Reservist and freshman state representative from Tampa who served a year in Iraq. "Although I enjoy being home with my family, my military commitment is something I took an oath to.

"When it comes to duty, we just do what we have to do. Somebody's got to do it."

Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, a spokesman for the Florida National Guard, said no new requests for troops have arrived from Washington, and it's possible that Florida may return more troops from Iraq and Afghanistan than it deploys this year.

He said as many as 800 Guard troops are scheduled to return in 2007, while officials anticipate deploying no more than 500.

"We don't see any units being mobilized in the next few months. We could get a mobilization order next week, but we don't see it," Tittle said.

"This is the caveat: Anything is subject to change on a moment's notice. We just don't know."

Last week, the head of the Florida National Guard met with Gov. Charlie Crist and sent out an announcement assuring troops that the governor and the Pentagon "are fully aware of the contribution Florida's soldiers and airmen are making."

He also reiterated the policy changes announced by the Defense Department.

Among them: that troops would be mobilized for a year at a time, unlike previous stints that sometimes lasted 18 months; that, to maintain cohesion, the military would try to mobilize Reserve forces as units instead of individuals; and that officials would try not to deploy Reserve forces more than once every six years whenever possible.

More than 500,000 Guard and Reserve troops have served on active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and at times they've made up nearly half of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Previous Pentagon rules limited those troops to no more than 24 months of active-duty service every five years. Part-time soldiers who had been to Iraq once could be sent back only if they volunteered.

The result is that only about 10 percent of the 522,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve are available for service, and more than half of the units that deploy now have to rely on volunteers from other states to fill their ranks.

In Florida, about 80 percent of Guard units already have been deployed, Tittle said. Which ones will return overseas and when is anyone's guess, he said.

But inside homes across the state, military families are facing the possibility. In Tampa, 1st Sgt. Mark Alfonso, 40, who served in Iraq with the 124th Infantry, and his 35-year-old wife, Kim, have weighed the implications of another year apart:

What burdens would it bring? How would it affect their two children? When will the call come?

In the end, Kim Alfonso said, they will be prepared.

"I'm probably a little more scared this time, only because we've had so many deaths," she said. But "if his duty is to go back, that's what he'll do.

"I believe what he believes. You did sign your name on that dotted line."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.