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Reservist activation could cause confusion


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POSTED: Monday, August 24, 2009

A proposal to allow military reservists to be activated during disasters and remain under Pentagon control threatens to create confusion during those emergencies. Gov. Linda Lingle and other state chief executives are objecting to such a divided line of command for reservists and National Guard members. Other ways to achieve the desired assistance are needed.

When Guard members are called into duty, as they have been in Afghanistan and Iraq, they come under federal command, but the Pentagon proposal would not place reservists under a governor's command during hurricanes, wildfires or other natural disasters. Maj. Gen. Bob Lee, the adjutant general of Hawaii's 5,500 Army and Air Guard troops, said troops would be confused about who is in charge under that scenario.

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in next year's election, said he “;absolutely”; agrees with the National Governors Association, which objected to it in a letter on Thursday to Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain of Arizona, its ranking Republican.

The problem in bringing the reserves into assistance of states during natural emergencies arose last year, when fire raged in California. The Pentagon was able to direct active-duty Marine helicopter units to respond to Gov. Arnold Scharzenegger's request for assistance but it could not provide similar aid by nearby Marine Corps Reserve units, according to Paul Stockton, the assistant secretary for homeland defense.

Moments of confusion about the chain of command occurred following Hurricane Iniki in 1992 after the 25th Infantry Division came to assist. Then-Kauai Mayor JoAnn Yukimura and then-Gov. John Waihee at one point assessed the needs “;to determine the level of Hawaii National Guard and the U.S. Army participation,”; then-Lt. Co. Jan Hicks recalled three years later.

Federal law allows military commanders to respond to such local requests for assistance from active-duty troops during times of crisis but prohibits reserve forces to be activated for the same mission. Active-duty units are to remain under Pentagon control during a natural disaster and under the Department of Homeland Security in response to a terrorist attack.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., have introduced a bill that would give governors tactical control over federal military units in supporting National Guard forces during domestic emergencies, which appears to have occurred during Iniki. Giving governors such control of reserve troops under those circumstances “;is an important states' right issue and will help military resources to be used more swiftly and effectively to respond to disasters here at home,”; said Bond, a former governor.