WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army is scraping up soldiers for duty in Iraq wherever it can find them, and that includes places and people long considered off-limits.
The Army on Tuesday confirmed that it pulled the files of some 17,000 people in the Individual Ready Reserve, the nation's pool of former soldiers. The Army has been screening them for critically needed specialists and has called about 100 of them since January.
Under the current authorization from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Army could call as many as 6,500 back on active duty involuntarily.
"Yes we are screening them and, yes, we are calling some of them up," an Army spokesman, Col. Joseph Curtin, told Knight Ridder. "We need certain specialties, including civil affairs, military police, some advanced medical specialists, such as orthopedic surgeons, psychological operations, military intelligence interrogators."
The Army has been forced to look to the Individual Ready Reserve pool and elsewhere for soldiers because it's been stretched so thin by a recent decision to maintain American troop levels in Iraq at 135,000 to 138,000 at least through 2005.
The Army is also considering a plan to close its premier training center at Fort Irwin in California so the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the much-vaunted Opposition Force against which the Army's tank divisions hone their combat skills, would be available for combat duty in Iraq.
No decision has been made on that plan.
In addition, the Defense Department this week announced that one of the Army's two mechanized infantry brigades in South Korea—a total of some 3,600 soldiers—would be rotating to Iraq this summer to pull 12-month combat tours, an unprecedented move.
The Individual Ready Reserve pool is comprised of people who completed their active-duty tours but are subject to involuntary recall for a period of years after leaving. A soldier who's served a four-year enlistment in the Army, for example, remains in the IRR for an additional four years. During that time he or she receives no pay and doesn't drill with a Reserve or National Guard unit.
Curtin said the fact that 17,000 files were being screened "is not a reflection of how many will be called back." He said the Army has 118,732 people on the IRR rolls.
The last major call-up of Ready Reserve troops was during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, when some 20,000 were returned to active duty. In November 2001, the Army took a number of Ready Reserves who volunteered back on active duty, and in November 2002 it took volunteers and non-volunteers.
The spokesman said that about 100 Ready Reserves had been recalled under the January authorization. About 7,000 Ready Reserves have been recalled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
More than 160,000 National Guard and Reserve forces from all the services are on active duty, many of them in Iraq, where they comprise at least 50 percent of the total forces.
Earlier this week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the Department of Defense had proposed to Congress that it be permitted to ask for the Internal Revenue Service's help in locating more than 50,000 people who have Individual Ready Reserve obligations to one of the services but can't be found.
Although those recently separated from service are obligated to notify their branch of any change of address, many don't. The largest number of "missing" Ready Reserves belongs to the Army—some 40,000.
The Defense Department would like to be able to tap IRS records for the addresses of those it has lost touch with. The proposal is likely to be challenged by privacy rights advocates.