Guard shortages only add to misery

Published May 10, 2007

For stating the obvious about National Guard readiness, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius got caught in the path of a White House twister. But the lecture she received Tuesday from White House spokesman Tony Snow, complete with fatuous claims about her response to the Greensburg disaster, only underscored her point. This administration refuses to confront the genuine emergency that exists within this nation's Guard.

In Kansas, where a deadly tornado on Friday wiped out an entire rural community, Sebelius praised the quick response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But she also went on to say that half the state's Guard trucks - equipment that would be helpful in clearing debris and responding to other crises - are in Iraq.

That claim is beyond factual dispute, but that didn't stop the White House from trying to paint Sebelius with the Blanco brush. Snow at first told reporters Sebelius had failed to ask for sufficient help, in a reprise of the administration attack on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco after Hurricane Katrina. But Snow was forced later to admit she had asked for considerably more than just "FM radios, " and by the time President Bush visited Greensburg on Wednesday the administration was distancing itself from the inept remarks.

Still, Bush has not faced up to the reality of the modern National Guard. Its mission has expanded dramatically since 9/11, both at home and abroad, without a commensurate increase in resources. The Guard has been decimated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving it in perilous shape to respond to natural disasters and domestic terrorism.

As recently as March, an independent commission created by Congress sounded the alarm. A staggering 88 percent of the nation's Guard units are so poorly equipped and trained they are considered "not ready" to deploy, reported the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. Last year, 30 percent of the soldiers and 60 percent of the equipment in each Army National Guard unit sent to Iraq were borrowed from other units. The National Guard itself estimates that it would need $38-billion to restore its units to full readiness.

"They are at their lowest level of readiness in decades, " commission chairman Arnold Punaro said in March. "They'll continue to be less and less ready."

Ask any state. In Kansas, Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting said: "The reality is, we should be able to do two or three (disasters) at the same time. Now we can do one and maybe one more small one." In Florida, Maj. Gen. Doug Burnett said recently that its equipment inventory is in the mid 20 percent range. "It's a huge dropoff overall, " he said. "Do we need to do something about it? Yes. ... Is it critical? Not quite yet."

States can often share resources in time of crisis, but that's a temporary measure at best. The Guard needs new structure and more resources, problems that won't be easily solved while the nation remains at war and the administration remains in denial.