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Leaned on as never before, reservists weigh re-enlistment

WASHINGTON—Sgt. Vic Blazier and his wife, Capt. Carla Blazier, were sent to war in 2003, leaving an infant and a toddler with a grandfather who died while the couple served in Iraq.

The ex-Army reservists from Marion, Ohio, had become civilian soldiers out of patriotism. But the sacrifice proved overwhelming.

After a decade of service, she resigned her commission as an officer in late 2004 after a year in Iraq. He returned home on hardship leave in late 2003 after his father died. Last year he passed up re-enlistment and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The Blaziers are part of what military experts see as a pattern as the Pentagon seeks to increase the burden on the Army's two reserve components, the Reserve and National Guard. Torn between family and the call to duty, many are taking a hard look at military commitment and choosing family when re-enlistment time arrives.

"I do a lot of volunteering. When you miss two birthdays, you try to make up for them," said Carla Blazier, 35, who joined the Reserves in 1993 as a software expert on a career path, but now puts family first. "I try to stay very involved and active in my children's life because I missed that year."

Those deciding whether to remain in the Guard and Reserve must take into account the possibility that they'd have to serve longer and more frequently on active duty than they do now. Under current mobilization policies, part-time troops can be called on to serve involuntarily on active duty for no more than 24 months during a five-year period. Army officials want the Pentagon to lift those restrictions so that National Guard and Reserve troops can be pressed into service more often; specifics remain to be worked out.

National Guard and Reserve troops called for service in Iraq usually spend about six months training, then a year in Iraq.

"We're not close to burnout, but we're at an important point and we need to monitor the situation very closely," said Christine E. Wormuth of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who authored a study on the future of the Guard and Reserves. "There is a recognition that you can't keep using the reserve component the way we've used it in the past three years."

Carla Blazier said that about half the 120 enlisted soldiers in her company didn't re-enlist or just stopped coming to drills.

It's the same story in Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexico border. The 100 soldiers in the 812th Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit, are still fresh from a deployment in Iraq. Roughly 25 percent to 35 percent are considering getting out, said Sgt. Maj. William S. Patterson, the unit administrator.

Some are eager to rekindle civilian jobs, threatened by their long absences. Others want to complete their education, said Patterson, a Vietnam veteran.

"These people want to get on track with their lives," he said.

A twice-deployed member of the unit with a wife and two sons, Staff Sgt. Noel Cortez decided that it was time to "take a break" from the Reserves after seeing the hardship that his absences imposed on his family.

"I wasn't there for a whole year and I missed a whole lot," said Cortez, who plans to attend college in January and become a nurse. "I don't want to go through it again and I don't want them to go through it again."

The trend, military analysts said, certainly isn't a wholesale mutiny from the Reserve and Guard.

Officials at Fort Worth Naval Air Station, the nation's largest joint reserve base, see no evidence of manpower erosion or sagging morale among the more than 20 major units at the base, despite multiple deployments involving more than 4,000 guardsmen and reservists.

"I don't know anybody who says, `This is just too much for me that I've got to leave,'" said Col. Kevin Pottinger, the commander of the 301st Fighter Wing. "My problem is, quite honestly, I've got people who want to go (overseas) and I'm trying to hold people back."

Still, the nation's 522,000-member Army Reserve and National Guard force shows signs of strain from repeated assignments. The assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, Thomas F. Hall, describes the balancing act as a "three-legged stool": the soldier, the family, the civilian employer.

"If any of those legs fall off," he said, "the stool tilts over."

A significant number of reservists and guardsmen are choosing "Fort Living Room," the buzz phrase for civilian life.

The Army Reserve fell about 15 percent short of its recruitment goal in 2005. It hired more recruiters, added to its advertising budget, eased age restrictions and added bonuses, and in 2006 it was just slightly short of the goal: It added 25,378 recruits and had a goal of 25,500.

The National Guard had recruitment problems in 2004 but is meeting its targets today thanks to bonuses and other incentives.

Still, some officials worry that many midlevel and noncommissioned officers are poised to leave the military to avoid falling behind in their civilian careers.

"That has really long-term implications for the quality of leadership we'll have 10 or 15 or 20 years from now," former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim said. "We're really losing our best and brightest young ones."

Certain guardsmen and reservists are particularly vulnerable to being called up because of their specialties, he said. "We keep going back to the same well, and so the pressure is actually greater than some people realize."

Many soldiers tell of the pressure of family separation.

Sgt. 1st Class Lance Schneider of Raleigh, N.C., spent 11 months in Iraq in 2004 as a member of the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the North Carolina National Guard. His son was born less than a month after he reached the war zone. Before his deployment, he'd never been away from his wife longer than two weeks.

"It's hard on your employer, it's hard on you, it's hardest on your family," said Schneider, 41, who works as a project manager for IBM in civilian life and plans to remain in the Guard.

Loretta Cox, a sergeant major with the 648th Regional Support Group in St. Louis, relied on a supportive husband when she left their kids, ages 2 and 11, behind. She spent two years in a domestic deployment, singing lullabies over the phone.

"My kids will say, `Mommy's a soldier and she's protecting us,'" said Cox, who plans to stay in the Reserve. "Obviously, I've already missed two years of my children's lives, and I'm not going to be jumping up and down saying, `Pick me, pick me.' But if I'm asked to do so, I'll honor my commitment."

Despite hardships, morale among reservists remains good, said Lt. Col. Mack Griffith, an Army Reserve chaplain at Fort McPherson, Ga.

But he said soldiers faced big challenges when they returned. Many find it hard to resume their usual roles at home after months of combat and brutality in Iraq.

"This is not the time to be the drill sergeant," Griffith said. "This is the time to come back and regain loving relationships in the home."

The divorce rate among reservists spiked in 2004, Griffith said, but has eased down since as a result of intensified family support activities offered by the Army, such as weekend couples retreats.

But, the chaplain noted, this reality lingers like an unwanted guest: "It's impossible for the spouse to fully appreciate what the husband or wife have gone through."

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(McClatchy correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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