Ever since the war in Iraq began in March, 2003, state officials have expressed concern that extensive use of the National Guard to fill out combat ranks overseas could leave states poorly prepared for natural disasters and other emergencies at home.
That fear has come true, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which says that the loss of Guard equipment in the war zone complicated the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The GAO, Congress' watchdog agency, found that guard units back in the states have, on average, only 34 percent of the operational equipment they would need in a domestic emergency. That's because the Pentagon requires them to leave equipment in Iraq for their replacements.
Moreover, the GAO said, state officials believe that the guard response following Katrina "was more complicated because significant quantities of critical equipment such as satellite communications equipment, radios, trucks, helicopters, and night vision goggles were deployed to Iraq."
As of June, the report said, Army guard units had left more than 64,000 pieces of equipment worth $1.2 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Less than half could be accounted for.
The problem is not limited to guard units in Gulf Coast states hit by Katrina, according to news reports.
Units from Pennsylvania, which has 3,200 soldiers in Iraq, have left behind a long list of equipment, including seven helicopters, 59 tractors, and 118 trailers. Replacement has been slow, according to Gov. Ed Rendell, presenting "a huge problem when it comes to the integrity of the National Guard and their ability to carry out their missions."
The fact is that the guard was never intended to be thrust into the front lines of a foreign war. It was supposed to be a group of well trained citizen soldiers who could be activated in case of weather disasters and other emergencies on the home front.
In its rush to war in Iraq, however, the Bush Administration stood this sensible principle on its head, pushing guard members into battle in numbers not seen since World War II. The GAO says the administration should re-examine its mission policy for the guard, and we agree.
As Americans saw in New Orleans after Katrina, public safety should not be endangered for lack of fully equipped National Guard units, especially when dealing with factors as unpredictable as the weather.