The top military official in the state of Maine recently spent three days in Iraq. -- When Maj. Gen. John "Bill" Libby returned, he spoke with reporters in Portland, Maine, and called the use being made of Maine Army National Guard troops of the 152nd Maintenance Company "inexcusable." -- "I strip myself of full-time mechanics and they get there and they're in a tower," he said. "They were frustrated by not being able to be mechanics . . . and I'll have a tough time convincing them to re-enlist." -- "National Guard and Reserve make up almost half of the 133,000 troops now in the country," noted Portland Press Herald reporter David Hench. -- [NOTE: This is incorrect: AP [registration required] reported Thursday that "The U.S. military is likely to keep an expanded force of about 160,000 troops in Iraq through the Dec. 15 election of a new government and then make a 'fairly rapid' reduction to what has been the standard troop level of about 138,000, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday."] -- Maj. Gen. Libby said that Iraqis were "eager for Americans to leave, viewing them as an occupying force," but that the U.S. has other plans. -- "A base in southern Iraq . . . will expand from 6,000 to 16,000 soldiers, drawing them from northern parts of the country. [Maj. Gen. Libby] expects U.S. forces will consolidate in two or three major, well-protected bases, with Iraqi troops eventually taking over operations in the rest of the country," Hench reported. "I think we'll be there for a long time." -- The difference for troops between life on patrol and life inside the base perimeter is surreal: "[L]iving conditions are surprisingly comfortable, [Libby] said, noting that the soldiers have air-conditioning in their rooms, a gymnasium, Internet cafes, and 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream." ...
GENERAL CALLS USE OF 152nd 'INEXCUSABLE'
By David Hench
Portland Press Herald(Portland, ME)
November 4, 2005
Maj. Gen. John "Bill" Libby, freshly returned from visiting his Maine Army National Guard troops in Iraq, called it "inexcusable" that the 152nd Maintenance Company is being used primarily as a security force.
"Three years in . . . it's inexcusable to have brought a maintenance company over there to do anything but maintenance," Libby said. "It's particularly galling to me when I strip myself of full-time mechanics and they get there and they're in a tower."
Libby, speaking with reporters Thursday, said switching assignments on the unit hurts his ability to recruit and retain soldiers for the Guard.
"They were frustrated by not being able to be mechanics . . . and I'll have a tough time convincing them to re-enlist," he said. That creates problems in an area that is already a challenge for the National Guard and regular army.
The state's top military official spent three days in Iraq, where he held a town meeting-style gathering with soldiers of the 152nd and traveled to southern and northern Iraq. The trip's purpose was to get a first-hand look at soldiers' living and work conditions and to make sure soldiers' training reflects the environment they are likely to be working in, he said.
Morale is good and living conditions are surprisingly comfortable, he said, noting that the soldiers have air-conditioning in their rooms, a gymnasium, Internet cafes and 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
Libby's visit coincided with the announcement that the Maine Army National Guard's 240th Engineer Group will ship out in January for training in Indiana, and then be deployed to oversee engineer units in Afghanistan. Those 80 soldiers will be arriving there in February or March, roughly the same time the 150 members of the 152nd are scheduled to return home from Iraq, Libby said.
With the latest deployment, about 80 percent of the Maine National Guard will have been deployed during the current conflict. Those soldiers cannot be made to return under current rules that limit to 24 months guardsmen's active-duty obligation, he said.
"The Maine National Guard is just about out of the fight, as the overall National Guard is," he said. That poses a problem for the long-term presence of the Army in Iraq, he said. The National Guard and Reserve make up almost half of the 133,000 troops now in the country.
"Two years from now, where is that 133,000 going to come from? We're flat out of troops in the National Guard," Libby said.
He said there are signs of how the U.S. presence is likely to change in the future. He visited a base in southern Iraq that will expand from 6,000 to 16,000 soldiers, drawing them from northern parts of the country. He expects U.S. forces will consolidate in two or three major, well-protected bases, with Iraqi troops eventually taking over operations in the rest of the country.
The Iraqis he spoke to there were grateful for the opportunity for self-governance, but eager for Americans to leave, viewing them as an occupying force, he said.
However, Libby said he does not believe the Iraqi Army is ready to take control. If the U.S. left prematurely, it would do a disservice to the majority of Iraqis and to the servicemen and women who have died during the war, he said.
"I believe it will be smaller in the not-too-distant future," he said of the U.S. presence there, "but I think we'll be there for a long time."
Libby's visit came at the end of one of the deadliest months for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, with 96 soldiers killed.
The death toll "doesn't illustrate the progress being made over there in any way, shape or form," Libby said. "It's not rosy. (But) it's not as bleak as you see on the national news."
For the most part, the 152nd has stayed within the relative safety of Camp Liberty. Early on, they conducted security for some convoys, but now their security duty is mainly as tower sentries and protecting the base.
Still, the danger is clear.
When Libby arrived, a transport plane was preparing to leave with the body of a California National Guard battalion commander. While in Iraq, Libby saw a man who had to have both legs amputated.
"It's not far from anyone's mind the dangerous climate they're in," he said. "It weighs on the mind of the leadership of the National Guard in every state. . . . It's a tough business and our soldiers are performing extremely well."