BRANCACCIO: This is how America says goodbye. The small town of Sheldon, Iowa has gathered to send loved ones off to the war in Iraq, soldiers from the local unit of the Iowa National Guard.
PA ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentleman, it's my pleasure to present the 2168th Transportation Company, Iowa Army National Guard!
BRANCACCIO: These men and women carry on the tradition of the original minutemen. Like the minutemen, they're known as "citizen-soldiers," that is, civilians who get called into duty in times of crisis. The National Guard is often used by governors to respond to state emergencies. But the Guard has another important role: fighting alongside the regular army when extra troops are needed overseas.
WOMAN: You'll be in our prayers every night and I really hate to see you go.
BRANCACCIO: Now the Guard is being mobilized in record numbers to fill a desperate shortage of troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But a growing number of critics say these part-time soldiers were not intended to be used so heavily for so long and as a result, they, and the communities they come from, are bearing too much of today's military burden.
Major general Ron Dardis is the commander of the Iowa National Guard.
DARDIS: The last year and a half to two years has been the largest mobilization we've experienced in Iowa since World War II.
BRANCACCIO: Almost half of all the troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan are part-time soldiers from state National Guard and Army Reserve units. Over 160,000 of them are currently on active duty worldwide. And since 9/11, Iowa has been among the top states in the percentage of guard troops called to duty.
WOMAN: These are our boys, we're proud of them.
BRANCACCIO: Small towns like Sheldon get hit especially hard when guardsmen and women are sent overseas. Unlike the regular Army, where units are made up of soldiers from all over the place, guard units are usually made up of local townspeople.
DARDIS: We live in and we make up the communities in which we reside. We have 50 some armories throughout the state. We have over 105 units throughout the state of Iowa. So, when you touch the Iowa Guard, you touch many communities throughout the state.
BRANCACCIO: Sheldon, population 4900, is a storybook Iowa farm town, located in the northwest corner of the state. And in the center of town is a National Guard armory. It's home to the 2168th transportation company. A trucking unit, their motto is, "You call, we haul."
MLOCEK: Good Morning 2168!
BRANCACCIO: Captain Jennifer Mlocek is the commander of the 170 men and women who make up the unit. Unlike her soldiers, the guard is her full time job. She used to be in the regular army, but found the constant moving a strain on family life.
MLOCEK: The National Guard is a wonderful opportunity for me to be full time military but also have the ability to grow roots so that my husband can have a career.
BRANCACCIO: That is one of the keys to the National Guard, is that it does have often roots in a particular region.
MLOCEK: Absolutely. Sheldon is a perfect example of that. If you look at many of the soldiers that are in this company, they are from northwestern Iowa.
MLOCEK: Company, attention!
BRANCACCIO: Spend a little time with the 2168th, and you'll realize just how much it reflects Sheldon. There are married couples in the unit, brothers, godparents of each other's kids. There's even a few of the AARP crowd, long past the age for most to be a soldier. Wendell DeBeer, 56, is a welder, and has five grandkids.
BRANCACCIO: How is it that a man of your life experience is still doing this?
DEBEER: I enjoy being in the Guard with all the other people. I enjoy the people.
BRANCACCIO: Now, DeBeer and the rest of these men and women are headed to the Persian Gulf. They were preparing to leave the week we visited.
Charles and Billi Crockett, both 25, are one of three married couples in the 2168th. Charles is an auto mechanic, Billi a supervisor of nurses at a residential care facility. They joined the guard years ago as juniors in high school, while they were still dating. At the time, Charles thought about staying in the family farming business, but wanted options.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: I'm like, well, I get some college money, get some experience, grow up a little bit. So that was the main reason. And nine years later, I'm still doing it.
BRANCACCIO: Charles and Billi have since moved out of the area, but for them, the 2168th is a way to stay in touch with the gang back home. Guard units typically get together for training one weekend a month, and two weeks a summer.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: What brings me to drill is it's fun to be there with my friends that I haven't seen through the course of a month, sometimes two months…
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: We're a big family.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: It is exactly. That's the perfect word. It's a big family.
MLOCEK: Specialist Crockett, ready to be called Sergeant Crockett?
BRANCACCIO: The Army has big plans for this big family. It's expected they'll be running convoys in Iraq. They could be gone for as long as one and a half years.
MLOCEK: Well, one of the major challenges that we're facing with this deployment is that we have a number of soldiers who are still fairly green. It could be argued that I am somewhat of a green commander.
MLOCEK: You are further ordered to active duty…
BRANCACCIO: Captain Mlocek took over the 2168th only days before it got activated for duty, so she relies on people like First Sergeant Barry Bannister. An aircraft electronics mechanic in civilian life, he's known as the "old man" of the unit. He's the senior enlisted soldier.
BRANCACCIO: Is there anyway that the people who haven't been through this before have any sense of what's coming?
BANNISTER: Absolutely not. Right now, they're in kind of the exciting, what I call exciting portion. It's almost like it's a party. It hasn't absorbed into them yet because they haven't been in combat, but I know it will, and it will absorb hard.
BRANCACCIO: Bannister's been there before. He's seen action several times, going back to Vietnam.
BANNISTER: There will be a lot of emotion. It will go on when these soldiers leave because in this community they're leaving family, grandparents, cousins, plus good friends. So it touches the whole community deeply.
BRANCACCIO: You've actually seen this.
BANNISTER: Oh yes, too many times.
BRANCACCIO: What about you yourself? Has your family adjusted to this latest mission of yours and the prospect of not seeing much of you for a little while?
BANNISTER: I'd like to think so, but probably not. It's kind of like a death in the family.
BRANCACCIO: And war is very much interrupting the lives of the Crockett family. The guard has activated both parents for the same mission at the same time. And those two little girls, Leah, age 5, and Taylor, age 3, they're going to live with grandma and grandpa for a while.
LEAH CROCKETT: I love you.
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: I love you too, silly.
BRANCACCIO: Just what are your feelings about going into active duty. I mean, you're trained for this.
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: I knew it was a possibility from the time I was 17 and signed my name on the line. So this is something I have to do. And I'll go over and I'll do it, and I'll come home and re-live my life again.
TAYLOR CROCKETT: I want to hug you.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: What I'm going to miss is I'm going to miss at least one birthday, out of both of them…missing the first day of kindergarten. Missing just little things that you tend to take for granted when you're always there, like fall down, skin a knee, just little things that I'm going to miss. And granted, when we get back, it's all going to be back in a big happy family again, but right now, it's a little bit broken.
BRANCACCIO: The emotional cost on families of the Iraq war is enormous. The town suffers too. Remember, Guard members like the Crocketts have regular everyday jobs. When hundreds of them get sent from a single town, it can have a real impact on the local economy.
BANNISTER: For some of these small businesses, they have five or six employees and something may come up, especially in a small town, where three of those employees are in the Guard. So now you've lost 50% of their work force and they have to figure out how to readjust.
BRANCACCIO: But it's not just the private sector that getting hit hard. Cities and towns are losing firemen, EMT's, and cops. According to one survey, 44% of police departments nationwide have lost personnel to National Guard call-ups. That issue recently came to a head in the Iowa capital of Des Moines. Last month, Des Moines police chief William McCarthy, himself a Vietnam Vet, lashed out at the Pentagon after the Guard took an officer he considered vital to homeland security efforts. McCarthy condemned the Pentagon for, quote, "lying and manipulating its troops," calling it "evil."
MCCARTHY: The response that we got back is that…
BRANCACCIO: What got McCarthy upset is the Pentagon's controversial "Stop Loss" policy. It's aimed at the Army's current shortage of regular troops. That policy forces soldiers whose units are activated for duty to remain in the military beyond the end of their enlistment period.
Take Charles Crockett for example. His enlistment is supposed to end in three months that would be a chance to leave the military if he wanted. Instead, he's looking at a year and a half in Iraq. And the same for his wife Billi; her enlistment is also supposed to end in the next few months.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: It'd be nice to know when we're going to be home, but it's not something we can count on.
BRANCACCIO: Billi, do you deal well with uncertainty?
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: No, I don't. I like to know where I'm going to be and when, and for how long, but...
VILSACK: I think what I hear from the folks in the Guard is not so much that they are concerned about the fact they have to serve, it's the predictability of the service.
BRANCACCIO: Democrat Tom Vilsack is the governor of Iowa.
VILSACK: When the Army tells you that you're going to be in for 12 months, and then just before that 12 months expires, they tell you, "Oops, we're going to take another three months out of your life, or another six months out of your life," or they do that repeatedly, it's the inconsistency, it's the uncertainty that is so difficult for the soldiers and particularly their families and communities.
BRANCACCIO: Vilsack was part of a group of 30 governors 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans who recently met with the Bush administration about the strains on the National Guard.
VILSACK: The homeland is secure when the hometowns are secure…
BRANCACCIO: A lot of governors need the National Guard at home to respond to disasters, like forest fires & hurricanes. One Republican governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, has said, quote, "We have to step back and rethink the whole picture." Vilsack agrees.
VILSACK: Well, I think the administration had a wonderful war plan, but they didn't have a peace plan. They didn't have a concrete understanding of the extent of personnel that would be required to win the peace in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: Even high ranking Pentagon officials have expressed concerns about the manpower needed to secure Iraq. In a congressional hearing before the start of the war, former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki had this to say when asked how many troops would be required to occupy Iraq.
SHINSEKI: Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.
BRANCACCIO: That assessment was later rejected by the Bush administration. So it's National Guard troops that are being asked to fulfill the mission and being put in harm's way. And now, it's the turn of the 2168th.
BRANCACCIO: It's dangerous duty over there. Have you thought about it?
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: All the time.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: As little as possible.
BRANCACCIO: Death has already been a visitor to the unit. One soldier from the 2168th, PFC David Kirchhoff died on a previous tour of duty in Iraq. Shortly after we completed filming this story, two other soldiers died in a truck accident as the unit was preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf: Staff Sgt. Bruce Pollema and Specialist Dustin Colby.
And it's not just in Sheldon. November 2nd, 2003 is a day the residents of Boone, Iowa remember well. Boone is home to a helicopter unit of the Iowa National Guard. At one point, Boone had more guardsmen serving in Iraq than any other town in Iowa. On that day, Iraqi insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter in one of the deadliest attacks against Americans of the war. 16 soldiers died. Two had trained with the Boone unit: the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Bruce Smith, age 41, and a crew member Sergeant Paul Fisher, 39.
VILSACK: In small communities, a casualty, or a fatality, is a very personal matter. It's very personal, it extends way beyond just family and friends. Every community member gets impacted and affected by the story, by the tragedy of a young life being ended too soon.
BRANCACCIO: These big strains on small towns have affected how Iowans feel about the war. "Iowans frown on heavier Guard burden" read a headline in the DES MOINES REGISTER. A poll found that a majority of Iowa residents, 53%, disapprove of how the Army is using the National Guard.
VILSACK: I think Iowans, traditionally, have always viewed conflict with a wary eye. We're ready to serve. We'll do our job, but we want to make sure we fully understand the mission and that the mission is what it needs to be to advance the country.
BRANCACCIO: With departure looming for the 2168th, it's time to face the nitty gritty. Forms for health care, life insurance, and wills. Crucial things for a family man like Charles Crockett getting his affairs in order.
SGT. CHARLES CROCKETT: Help me, what are you looking for?
WOMAN: All your financial stuff.
BRANCACCIO: An early morning on a late summer Thursday, time to go. Time to board the buses, the first stage of a journey to war. A chance for a hug, a whispered reassurance and to say farewell.
MILLIE DEBEER: You take care and you come back.
BRANCACCIO: For citizen soldiers and parents Charles and Billi Crockett, the final touch of civilian life.
SGT. BILLI CROCKETT: I try not to think about it. A year or more sounds like such a long time. I don't know, if I don't think about it, it doesn't go away, but it makes it a little bit easier right now. It's been a hard month, just knowing we're leaving. And it's been hard.