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1,000 more sailors expected to join ground forces in Iraq

Three years after Baghdad fell, the Navy is poised to dramatically increase the number of sailors in Iraq and Afghanistan, filling gaps in Army and Marine Corps units.

The seamen, called "individual augmentees," support ground operations thousands of miles from the nearest port, in deployments that can be far different from the Navy's traditional role.


By Alex Fryer

Seattle Times staff reporter

Last year, about 400 sailors from naval bases at Everett, Whidbey Island, Bangor and Bremerton were called to fill specific jobs ashore. Most involved security, communications, construction and administrative duties, on yearlong deployments. For example, some helped staff prisons and others drove trucks.

New requests for Navy personnel in the Middle East and Afghanistan are coming in weekly. There are 4,000 sailors in Iraq — a number that is expected to increase to 5,000 in the next few months. It is unclear how many more sailors will be called to serve ashore by the end of the year.

"Ground forces have been in a very tough rotation over the last several years, and if we can pitch in to help relieve some of that, we're going to do that," Adm. Michael Mullen said during a recent interview with reporters. "We are replacing some of the Marines and soldiers who are on the ground. ... I couldn't tell you exactly what it's going to grow to."

The sailors do not perform raids or attack insurgent positions. But some of their missions, particularly defusing homemade bombs, can be dangerous.

Though most sailors sent to Iraq and Afghanistan volunteer, Navy officials say everyone should be prepared to serve.

"If you're wearing a uniform, you're a volunteer for whatever the military needs from you," said Lt. Trey Brown, a Navy spokesman. "We want to take the people who are more eager, but everybody has got to be ready to go."

Not all sailors are enthusiastic about the Navy's support role.

A Naval Academy graduate based in San Diego received orders on Wednesday to report to another base in 12 days and ship out to Iraq, even after he specifically turned down a request to volunteer. To him, the program refutes pronouncements by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Army is "battle-hardened" but in good shape.

"Rumsfeld says the Army is not stretched too thin, but you have sailors relieving the Army," said the officer, who wished to remain anonymous. "A little straightforwardness goes a long way. We'd like the same from the folks on high."

There are 356,429 Navy personnel on active duty; about 36,500 are deployed around the world.

Requests for naval manpower in the region come from Central Command, which oversees all military operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. The requests pass through Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., where it is determined which naval regions will be asked to draw sailors. Navy Region Northwest includes facilities in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho.

Selecting officers and enlisted personnel from ships and shore duty is a delicate balancing act, said Brown, the Navy spokesman.

"They don't want to decimate a certain area. We want to manage this so we don't inhibit the Navy's mission at sea."

The Navy asks for service members with specific training or skills such as electronic warfare officers. But the call also goes out for "Any Rate" sailors with indeterminate skills.

"They need a body to fill a spot," said Petty Officer Dustin Hill, who is assigned to the USS Alabama, a ballistic nuclear submarine homeported at Bangor.

There is a lot of talk on base about going to Iraq, he said, but so far, most submariners aren't worried that they will be selected against their will.

"People feel like they're safe," Hill said. "We trained to be on submarines. It just doesn't make sense" for the submariners to support combat operations.

Master Chief John Gross, stationed at Naval Station Everett, volunteered to go to Afghanistan from October 2004 to April 2005, joining an operations center that followed the movement of ground forces and summarized daily events.

For him, the duty offered a unique opportunity to participate in war.

"It's a slice of life I would have never gotten to experience if I hadn't put my arm in the air to volunteer," he said.

When a Navy vessel heads out to sea, the sailors on board have trained with each other. But when sailors deploy to land combat, they often go alone and serve under a different branch of the military.

Gross said he worked well with the other services, but there is evidence not all deployments have gone smoothly.

In January 2003, nine medics assigned to Naval Hospital Oak Harbor left to serve with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq.

During an interview with Navy Criminal Investigative Services, which was investigating a report of prisoner abuse by the medics, one corpsman said the Navy guys were not well-liked among the Marines.

"I cannot say I was well-received by the Marines with which I was assigned," said the medic, whose name was blocked out in the file. "I believe they think of us as lazy [Navy] Corpsman who do not do a thing."

Investigators later determined the allegations of abuse were false.

Christine Wormuth, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said individual sailors risk being the "odd man out" when they integrate into other units.

Over time, she said, the stress of such deployments could erode the attractiveness of the Navy, and present a recruitment and retention problem.

The Pentagon "is trying to find ways to put Navy personnel in jobs that are muddy-boots-type jobs," she said.

Gross said volunteers at Naval Station Everett were easy to come by, particularly for general deployments that appeal to lower-ranked sailors.

Depending on their pay rate, service members can double their salaries by working in combat zones, though it's not money that motivates most volunteers, he said.

"You can read something in a news article or see something on TV, but there is no substitute to actually being immersed in a 360-degree view with all the sights and smells," Gross said.

"Money is money. The experience overrides it."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company