By PATRICIA M.MURRET, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - The Maryland National Guard has been ordered to send 1,300 troops to Iraq, more than double the number of soldiers it typically has in harm's way.
Pikesville's 58th Brigade Combat Team, Dundalk's 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, and the 1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry Regiment, headquartered in Annapolis, will head to Camp Shelby, Miss., in stages over the next several months to begin a year's deployment, said 58th Brigade Combat Team spokesman Capt. Randall Short Wednesday.
The upcoming state Guard deployments are not part of the president's controversial troop surge, Short said.
"Absolutely not," he said. "This is part of the force that was already there."
Maryland Guardsmen will be replacing units already in Iraq, Short said.
In February, 627 Maryland Guard troops were deployed around the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, state Guard spokesman Lt. Wayde Minami said then.
That number, at just under 9 percent of the state's approximately 7,000 guardsmen, was fairly typical compared with past years, he said.
"I think the most we've ever had deployed is 13 percent," Minami said.
Now, 18.6 percent of state Guard forces will be going to the war in Iraq in one fell swoop. When the 380 Guardsmen already deployed are included, the total state Guard force overseas is nearly 25 percent of its total.
Gov. Martin O. Malley could not comment on the deployments because he was tied up with legislative business, said his spokesman Sasha Leonhardt.
"These percentages are troublesome. There is no question about it," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who voted against the war in Iraq, but has reiterated his support for the troops.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, complimented the service men and women overseas in a statement Wednesday.
"As these soldiers prepare to deploy overseas, I want to assure them that this Congress will not only provide the necessary funding for our troops; we will continue to insist on a policy in Iraq designed to foster their success," Hoyer said.
The outsize Maryland force is the result of a change in policy announced by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Jan. 11 that changed how the Defense Department manages deployment of National Guard and reserve forces.
National Guardsmen and reservists traditionally received orders to deploy on an individual basis.
In the future, they will be deployed as a unit, the Defense Department said, reportedly to help streamline training and to allow the National Guard and reserve forces more predictability around deployments.
That change also reduces reserve and Guard force deployments from 18 months to one year. In addition, troops assigned to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will only spend about 10 months "in-country."
The new policy allows extension of year-long deployments, if combat commanders, like Gen. David H. Petraeus, deem it critical, Short said.
At the same time, Guardsmen and reservists may now be called up more often.
According to the new policy, select Guard and Reserve units may be called up for service sooner than the current goal of five years between deployments lasting a year or more.
The 58th Brigade Combat Team, which was reorganized last year, has never deployed to the current war zones, Short said.
"So it's really our turn to get in there and do our part before they send National Guard troops for the second time," he said. "It's only fair that everybody takes a turn before anybody is asked to do something twice."
More than 75 percent of the Maryland National Guard will be at home to help the state in the event of terrorist attack or natural disaster, both Short and Minami have said.
All first-responder civil support teams and vehicles will remain in the state with these upcoming deployments, Short said Wednesday.
At those levels, the spokesmen have said, the Maryland National Guard would be prepared to handle any situation as they usually would.
The Guard would be able to call on troops from other states to help in a disaster of Katrina-like proportions, they said, which would be necessary anyway in a crisis of that size, even if every soldier were at home.