Oregon National Guard soldiers have complained for more than five years that the regular Army treats them as second-class citizens, especially when they're mobilizing for war or demobilizing. Earlier this month came evidence that it's true, at least some of the time.
Thanks to Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Kurt Schrader, who pursued complaints from Oregon soldiers and their families, then demanded answers from the Army, the Defense Department and the Government Accountability Office, we can see that unofficial Army policy favored full-time soldiers at the expense of National Guard soldiers and reservists.
In an internal PowerPoint presentation at the military base near Tacoma, which was preparing to channel some 2,700 Oregon National Guard soldiers from Iraq back to Oregon, an Army medical provider told her staff that some "weekend warriors" sought to magnify their medical issues to extend their federal paychecks. (Noted in the talking points accompanying the presentation: "The first step ... is to accurately identify which component the soldier belongs to - active duty, reserve or national guard - since this will help determine the priority of care.")
This confirmed the impressions of Oregon soldiers who have complained that Army officials at Lewis-McChord sought to rush them off federal status, even with unresolved medical issues. Oregon soldiers have complained of other slights as well, from being denied the right to get second opinions to being threatened with disciplinary action for asking questions. Some have said they refused to sign demobilization paperwork, then had the paperwork authorized anyway, with the explanation that "service member not available for signature."
Wyden and Schrader say they find this outrageous, and they are right.
To their credit, Army higher-ups hastened to disavow the prejudice against National Guard troops evidenced in the Lewis-McChord materials.
"As Commanding General of the Army Medical Command," Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker wrote to Wyden, "I recognize and apologize for the insensitive depiction of Reserve Component soldiers," adding, "I am appalled by the insensitivity of one of my officers."
The commander of Lewis-McChord has ordered his own investigation. The unnamed medical provider at the Madigan Army Medical Center has apologized to the Oregon National Guard's 41st Brigade and been suspended. And Army officials declared at a news conference Tuesday that they are committed to treating National Guard troops and reservists the same way they treat full-time soldiers.
Still, this revealing glimpse of attitudes suggests that the full-time Army lacks appreciation for the burden shouldered by National Guard troops and Reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have been on the tip of the spear at many times, carrying out dangerous missions and suffering casualties at rates equal to full-time troops. While the 41st Brigade's recent deployment was a support mission in Iraq, other Oregon troops are still gearing for deployments this year to Iraq and Afghanistan. For many soldiers it will be the second, third or fourth deployment in the last seven years. The Army couldn't maintain its operations without the Guard.
In the Vietnam era, serving in the National Guard was the low-risk way to serve in uniform, as the Army conscripted full-time soldiers for the fight. But in today's all-volunteer service, National Guard troops can face the same risks and make the same sacrifices that full-time troops do.
It's the military's obligation to level the battlefield and treat all its soldiers equally. It has promised to redress this cultural bias before. Ashamed by this week's publicity, it is vowing again to do so.
Thanks to Wyden and Schrader for exposing the persistence of this problem and to their call for the GAO to explore a "culture of discrimination" against the National Guard and Reserves. All too often, the only way to move the military is to apply pressure from the outside.