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Border mission will add to an expanding Guard role

WASHINGTON—President Bush's announcement Monday that he'll deploy several thousand National Guardsmen in an attempt to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the border with Mexico adds one more mission to a growing number of roles for the country's part-time troops.

The new assignment comes as the National Guard is beginning to show signs of strain. Many of its vehicles and much of its combat equipment have been left behind in Iraq.

Lawrence J. Korb, who served as the Pentagon's top official for personnel in the Reagan administration, said border security wasn't a recent emergency that justified calling up the Guard.

"The Guard is there as a backup to the regular Army or to the state and local authorities when an emergency comes up that they can't handle," he said. Plus, long-standing guidelines generally call for activating the National Guard for federal service no more than once every five to six years, he said. Many Guard units have been activated more than once already for missions at home, in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

"It's bound to have a bad impact on personnel readiness," said Korb, who's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group.

Between 300 and 450 Guardsmen already are working on counternarcotics efforts in the four border states, assisting federal and state authorities with aerial surveillance, communications and other tasks, said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau.

More than 440,000 people serve part time in the National Guard, 340,000 of them in the Army National Guard and 100,000 in the Air National Guard. They usually serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year under the command of the state governors, but the president can press them into federal service.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 300,000 Guardsmen and women have been called up to serve in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in security roles in the United States.

Guard members fly nearly all the air patrols over the United States and respond to forest fires, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

Some 22,000 Guard members are on duty in Iraq and 5,000 in Afghanistan. In 2005, half the Army's combat brigades in Iraq were pulled from the National Guard, the biggest use of part-time troops in an overseas conflict since World War II. Nearly 400 soldiers from the National Guard have died in the two wars.

Already underequipped before the Sept. 11 attacks, Army National Guard units now have only about 34 percent of the combat equipment they're supposed to have, primarily because much of it was left in Iraq for other troops to use or destroyed in combat.

For example:

_When the North Carolina 30th Brigade Combat Team returned from Iraq last year, it left behind 229 Humvees for other units to use, about 73 percent of its total, the Government Accountability Office reported to Congress in March.

_Three Illinois Army National Guard units left about 130 Humvees in Iraq, nearly all of those in their inventory, the GAO reported.

Without equipment, the units couldn't train, the GAO said.

Overall, the National Guard told the GAO, 14 military police companies left more than 600 Humvees and other armored trucks in Iraq, all of which are expected to remain there for the duration of U.S. operations.

The Army has pledged to supply $20 billion over the next few years to rebuild the Guard's equipment stocks, "but there is still a huge concern" to make sure that Congress comes through with the money, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a nonpartisan organization that represents current and former National Guard officers.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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