Today’s reserve forces have made tremendous progress transforming from a strategic to an operational reserve, even as they continue to support two wars and hundreds of other missions around the world, a senior Defense Department official said last week.
Family programs are strong, employers are supporting the troops, recruiting and retention have hit record highs, and the active and reserve forces are working together better than they ever have in the past, said Dennis M. McCarthy, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.
Barely four months into the post, McCarthy painted a positive picture of where the reserve forces are today, while admitting more work remains to be done.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges, but overall I think the force is holding up extremely well,” he said in a broad-ranging interview with American Forces Press Service.
About 138,000 reservists are now serving on active duty. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, about 725,000 reservists have been activated, and more than 64 percent of the reserve force has seen recent deployments. That’s the highest percentage of any time in the past 50 years, officials said.
McCarthy -- a retired Marine reservist -- has witnessed first-hand many of the changes as the force began its transition in the wake of the start of two wars.
He was activated in the early 1990s at the start of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1997, he became the only reserve general officer to command an active-duty Marine division, and before his retirement in 2005 as a lieutenant general, McCarthy commanded the Marine Corps Reserve.
McCarthy acknowledged that of the reserve forces, the Army’s reserve components faced the largest transition. For decades, they had relied on a deployment model that counted on its units having time after mobilization to train and get the equipment they needed to deploy.
That model has shifted, putting more demands on the unit to report to the mobilization site trained and ready to deploy. The shift requires the active-duty force to work hand in hand with the reserves on funding, equipping, training and readiness requirements.
Admittedly, McCarthy said, those areas got off to a shaky start as the two forces were thrust into providing the lion’s share of the troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, that relationship has forged into one that has never been better, he noted.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The fact is that the quality of relationships has grown since 2001, in part because of need – [it] had to happen. But I think in part because now that you’ve had leaders [and] formations working together, the confidence that they have in each other goes up.”
At the start of the wars, reservists faced lengthy deployments stretched by six months or more at a mobilization site readying for war. Many saw the equipment they would fight with for the first time at the site. Pay issues plagued the units, as National Guard members transitioned from state pay systems to the federal system. Some training was duplicated because of certification requirements.
Now, reserve units are training more at their home stations. That training is certified and is not repeated at mobilization. Also, reserve units now are heading into the first funding year that puts new equipment in their hands in time to have troops train with it before they are mobilized and deployed.
Besides training and equipping the units, some of the greatest strides in progress have come in supporting families, McCarthy said.
All seven reserve-component services and the Defense Department have poured money and resources into family programs since the wars started. At one time, family groups were led by a volunteer who used donated office space or supplies from a nearby armory. Now, full-time family-support staff has been fielded to the units, and staff and funds have been added all the way to the Defense Department level.
“We are clearly better than we were in 2001,” McCarthy said.
The retired three-star general said he spent his last four years in uniform pushing the importance of family readiness programs. The emphasis has to be at the commander level, he said.
“It’s a non-delegable duty for a commander to have a strong family readiness program,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy praised the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which representatives in each state can act as a single resource, reaching out to a network of services available for servicemembers and families. The program started in the Minnesota National Guard in 2007 to help members of the 34th Infantry Division who had been deployed for 23 consecutive months. The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act mandated a national program for all reserve components.
Employer support efforts in the past two decades also have reaped dividends, McCarthy said. Much of that has to do with the work by the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department agency that works with employers, reservists, military leaders and volunteers to help employers prepare for the increase in deployments.
“It is so much better and so much stronger than it was 19 years ago. It’s almost like night and day,” McCarthy said.
Many times, especially in small towns, a unit deployment can mean a serious reduction in force on police and fire departments and education and medical staffs. This has put employers in a pinch, especially small businesses, which are required by law to guarantee a job for the returning reservist.
“When [reservists] leave, it’s a big hole,” McCarthy said. “And people are finding ways to work things out.”
But while McCarthy attributed a portion of progress to ESGR’s efforts, much of the support stems from the patriotism of the employers themselves, he noted.
“I could go on from now until next week with one good story after another about what individuals employers … are doing for their employees,” McCarthy said. Still, he said, unit commanders today seldom reach out to employers until there is an issue with a troop. McCarthy said he would like to see commanders embrace employer support much the same as family support.
“If there’s one area where I think we really need some improvement, it’s making commanders more aware of the need to … proactively reach out the employers,” McCarthy said. “Don’t wait until there’s a problem. Let’s get out in front of it.”
Both families and employers are critical to the record high recruiting and retention numbers the reserves enjoyed this year, McCarthy said.
“If we lose either the families or the employers,” he warned, “retention is going to in the tank. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Even state governors and commanders have all but stopped complaining about the frequent deployments of their troops and equipment, McCarthy said. Early on in the wars, many governors and commanders complained that heavy deployment cycles were leaving the states without adequate resources to respond to internal needs, such as fires, floods and other emergencies. But largely out of necessity, states now have agreements with their neighbors so that if their resources are not available, they can borrow them from nearby.
Also, senior leadership from the active-duty Army and the National Guard put together a list of equipment that will stay in each state for such responses. Those stocks are being built up now, McCarthy said.
McCarthy pointed out that every reservist serving now has either enlisted or re-enlisted since the wars started. At the outset of the wars and the accompanying heavy deployment cycles, some questioned whether the use of the reserve components in an operational manner would put too much strain on the community-based force. And many who had served for years in the Cold War strategic reserve were forced to decide whether to become part of an operational force or leave.
Reservists serving now deserve credit for the decision they made to serve in the fight now, McCarthy said.
“This is the all-volunteer force,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s another greatest generation because of this spirit of willing volunteerism, fully understanding what the implications of making that decision are.”