« War vets' mental health has police on alert | Main | *TSB Marines return after nearly seven months in Iraq »

Marine commander: Deployments to continue steadily for a few years

CAMP PENDLETON ---- Though the pace of deployments of local troops has slowed a bit, North County Marines will probably continue to be deployed to Iraq every seven months or so for "the next few years," the Camp Pendleton-based commander of the Marines' western bases said last week.


Monday, September 18, 2006
Last modified Sunday, September 17, 2006 8:40 PM PDT
By: JOE BECK - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON ---- Though the pace of deployments of local troops has slowed a bit, North County Marines will probably continue to be deployed to Iraq every seven months or so for "the next few years," the Camp Pendleton-based commander of the Marines' western bases said last week.

Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of Marine Corps Installations West, said last week in an interview with the North County Times that he sees no more changes to the rate of deployments in the near future.

"It's down slightly,'' he said of the deployment rate. "In the aggregate, it's slowing down."

But Lehnert said the slowdown hasn't been sharp enough to be noticed by many rank-and-file Marines, about 75 percent of whom are on their first enlistment.

The pace of military deployments in and out of Iraq is determined in Washington by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and any more slowing of the tempo depends on decisions made in the Pentagon, Lehnert said. Attempts to obtain a number for the rate of deployments through Camp Pendleton officials and staff members of the House Armed Services Committee were unsuccessful.

The proper numbers of Marines and soldiers required in Iraq has been the subject of intense debate in Washington since before the beginning of the war.

At that time, Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army's top commander at the time, told Congress that the war would require several hundred thousand more Marines and soldiers than the roughly 130,000 that the war's architects included in the original war plans. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, denounced Shinseki's assessment as "wildly off the mark."

The disagreement on troop levels continues today.

The National Defense Authorization Act making its way through the House of Representative calls for an expansion of the Marine Corps and the Army. The bill calls for 3 percent more Marines than President Bush requested in the budget he proposed to Congress. Marine Corps strength would increase from 175,000 under Bush's proposal to 180,000 under the version passed by the House. The Marines currently have about 179,000 troops.

Many involved in military policy say the war in Iraq has stretched the military too thin. They cite deployments in and out of Iraq at higher rates than the military normally tolerates as evidence of their concern.

Josh Holly, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said the Marines use a rotation schedule of seven months in Iraq and seven months off for refitting equipment and retraining. Holly said the Army's rotation schedule in Iraq is one year away for every year spent in Iraq. The committee's chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, has said he is concerned that the military priorities spend too much for development of weapons systems far off in the future and not enough on manpower and equipment to win the nation's current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A pair of former top officials from the Defense Department who served under a Republican and a Democratic president said they agree that current troop levels are forcing deployments at rates that undermine the military's effectiveness.

"Basically, they are deploying at a rate 25 percent higher than what the Pentagon considers acceptable,'' said Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Reagan. Korb now works with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that advocates a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next year.

Philip Coyle, who worked as an assistant defense secretary under President Clinton, said the United States is caught between conflicting pressures to leave Iraq or increase troop levels to cope with the increasing violence in the face of polls showing that public opinion has soured on the war.

The inability to reach a clear decision on which course to take is a prescription for continuing higher-than-normal rates of deployments, he said.

"Certainly, there's lots of pressure for the numbers to go up, but we also have lots of disillusioned families and Guard and Reserve members who have been called back several times, and it's hard for anybody to do anything about it right now," Coyle said.

The military is reluctant to release many details about troop deployments from Camp Pendleton and other bases. Families of deployed Marines have used their own Web site, Marineparents.com, to assemble data about the comings and goings of specific units from their bases, including Camp Pendleton. Tracy Della Vecchia said she founded the Web site in 2003 as a place for family members of Marines to discuss their feelings and share information as the war began.

Information about specific units typically surfaces as buzz or rumor on the site's message board, then volunteers try to confirm the message board chatter through official Marine Corps channels available to Marines' family members.

"We don't put information up on the Web site until it's a done deal,'' said Della Vecchia, who lives in Missouri.

She said information isn't released until after troops have left for or returned from Iraq, a policy that has allowed Marineparents.com to avoid friction with the military over the need to guard secrets pertaining to the whereabouts of combat units.

Message boards and chat rooms are checked by trained volunteers for information or opinions that could endanger troops in the field, Della Vecchia said, adding that she is unmoved by complaints from some users about censorship.

"Operational security comes first,'' she said.

Information about units includes the base from which they were deployed, the date and location of their deployment, length of the deployment and the phone number of the Family Readiness Officer, a person assigned to each unit who remains at the home base to help family members verify the mailing addresses of deployed Marines. Della Vecchia said the officers are one of the official Marine Corps sources used to verify unit information on the Web site.

Contact Joe Beck at (760) 740-3516 or jbeck@nctimes.com. Comment at nctimes.com.

Official Marine Corps Web sites and Marineparents.com offer advice to family members and friends of Marines who are about to head overseas. The steps recommended for those seeking information on the whereabouts of a specific Marine or wanting to send mail and packages include the following:

Use the address the deployed Marine gave prior to departure. It should work for the duration of the deployment. Be sure to include the unit identification code included in most overseas mailing addresses.

Verify the address through Motomail.us, a U.S. government Web site that requires the correct unit identification number.

Call the family readiness officer assigned to the deployed Marine's unit. Phone numbers for family readiness officers assigned to specific units are available at Marines.com

Those married to a Marine should attend predeployment briefings held for spouses about a month before departure. Those unable to attend should contact the Key Volunteer Network for Marine families to learn about help available during the Marine's deployment. Contact information is available through usmc-mccs.org/kvn/index.cfm and Marineparents.com