IRR call-up puts lives in disarray

Rick Howell thought his military career ended seven years ago. Then, last month, a telegram ordered him to report for duty on Aug. 31 for what surely will be at least a year in Iraq.
The timing couldn't be worse.

The 47-year-old retired helicopter test pilot will have to leave home 27 days before his wife is due to give birth to their first child. He'll also leave behind a half-finished house and two aging parents.

Howell is one of thousands of former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve who can be plucked from retirement and civilian life to fill the ranks of an Army taxed by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IRR is an infrequently used pool of former soldiers who can be called to duty in a national emergency or war.

Some go into the IRR to complete their commitment to the armed forces. Others, including some officers, stay in the IRR voluntarily to boost their pensions or remain eligible for career opportunities.

In January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the Army to mobilize up to 6,500 IRR soldiers. The Army has identified 5,672 IRR soldiers for call-up and has notified about 2,100 of them so far.

"We are in a time of war, and we need our well-trained soldiers. These are seasoned soldiers, not new recruits, so they can be mobilized quickly," says Human Resources Command spokeswoman Andrea Wales.

The IRR call-up is one of a number of measures taken to shore up the forces in the war on terrorism.

The Pentagon also has extended tours of duty from 12 months to 15 months, barred soldiers who are already deployed from leaving even if they reach the end of their enlistment contract or their retirement date, and called up large numbers of reservists and National Guard troops.

"They've used almost every trick in the book to keep people in, to extend them well beyond their expectations," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has been critical of postwar planning by the Bush administration. "It's desperation."

Jeremy Broussard, 27, of Bowie, Md., was not allowed to leave the military after he completed four years of active duty. Due to become inactive in May 2003, he had planned to begin law school last fall at Tulane University in New Orleans. Instead, he had to stay in the Army until November 2003.

Broussard begins law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., this fall. But he remains eligible for the IRR recall because as an officer he can be recalled until he reaches retirement age or resigns his commission. "As a soldier, I would say this is a sign of desperation and a lack of postwar planning," Broussard says.

Howell, of Cottondale, Ala., says he, too, feels like a victim of poor planning. He retired as a major in 1997, returned to Alabama, got married in 2000, and set about having a family. As an officer, however, he is subject to call-up until he has 28 years of service, reaches mandatory retirement age or resigns his commission.

Howell served as a maintenance test pilot and aviation logistics officer during 16 years of active duty and is considered 20% disabled from a back injury. When he goes back, he'll be a supply officer.

"They are just looking for bodies to fill slots," he says. "This thing has gone bad quick, and they are just trying to put bodies on the ground."

Some former soldiers feel blindsided because military recruiters downplay IRR duty, casting it as a pool tapped only in dire circumstances, says Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Operation Truth, a non-profit advocacy group for soldiers.

Mass call-ups are rare. The military usually uses the IRR to meet a need for a particular specialty, such as pilots or dentists. In this instance, however, the military says 20% of the call-ups are truck drivers, 12% are supply specialists who can use a computer to track supplies, 10% are Humvee mechanics, 7% are administrative specialists and 6% are combat engineers.

Smaller numbers of cooks, carpenters, cable system installers and petroleum supply specialists have also been called to duty.

"It's pretty much the last thing you've got before the draft," says Rieckhoff, a former infantry platoon leader who served in Iraq and left the military in March. "You need grunts, foot soldiers; you need boots on the ground. They are going to the IRR because they are out of troops."

Jon Stach of Peoria, Ill., is one of those truck drivers who is so in demand. His call-up orders came July 16.

But Stach's wife, Tanya, a military reservist, is already serving as a truck driver in northern Iraq. If he reports for duty Aug. 31, there will be nobody to watch their three children. It could also mean that he and his wife will go 2 years without seeing each other.

Stach, 34,who enlisted in the military in 1988, left active duty in 1996 and joined the reserves. When the run-up to the Iraq war began in December 2002, the Stachs decided he would quit the reserves and enter the IRR so their children wouldn't be left without a parent in the event of a call-up.

His wife's civilian job, as a personnel administrator for the Army Reserve, required that she remain in the reserves.

"My impression of the IRR was that the chance of me being called up was next to none," says Jon Stach, a manager at Circuit City.

"I never once thought I would be called up to police an invaded country," he says.

Some IRR soldiers are already in Iraq.

Steve Smith of Kent, Ohio, a first lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, served six years in the Ohio Army National Guard and three years in the IRR. Smith, 30, left active duty in January 2001 and started his own business as a software consultant. He was recalled May 22.

"There is no part of my life that is not disrupted," Smith said in an e-mail interview. His wife, Michelle, runs their business alone while taking care of their 2-year-old daughter.

In Iraq, Smith leads a mechanized combat engineer platoon that disposes of enemy weapons, mortars, mines, rockets and ammunition. He said the call-up is an indication that the active-duty force isn't large enough to handle U.S. commitments abroad.

"Congress is having to fight the Pentagon to get them to increase the number of active-duty soldiers, which just seems completely backward to me," Smith said.