FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) — Before citizen-soldiers of the 48th Infantry Brigade deployed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Georgia National Guard troops spent months training away from their families and day jobs before they were prepared for war. Now a shrinking Army wants them able to get ready for combat sooner.
The brigade's 4,200 soldiers are the first of a dozen National Guard and Army Reserve units nationwide chosen to test a new role that pairs them with commanders on active-duty who will oversee their training.
The Pentagon hopes the change will make the Guard and Reserve troops better prepared to fight overseas at a time when the Army has roughly 100,000 fewer full-time soldiers than it did at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're still a National Guard unit, but we're hopefully maintaining a high level of training," said Col. Reginald Neal, the 48th Brigade's commander and a former school teacher and administrator.
A few hundred of the brigade's citizen-soldiers — who work as police officers and engineers, attorneys and truck drivers in their day jobs — attended a ceremony Friday at Fort Stewart in which the Guard soldiers stripped the brigade's lightning bolt insignia from their left shoulders and replaced it with the diagonally striped square patch of their new active-duty partner, the 3rd Infantry Division.
Though they still typically train one weekend each month — a schedule not expected to change in their new role — the 48th Brigade's soldiers long ago shed the National Guard's old weekend warrior stereotype.
The brigade deployed alongside 3rd Infantry units to spend a year fighting in Iraq in 2005, followed by a yearlong tour in Afghanistan in 2009. The citizen-soldiers paid their dues in blood. In all, 34 Georgia guardsmen were killed during the two deployments.
"This isn't that crazy of a thing we're doing here," said Maj. Gen. Jim Rainey, commander of the 3rd Infantry, who noted the shared history between his division and the Georgia Guard unit. "We've trained together, we've fought together, and sadly we've bled together."
Rainey said his job is to make sure the 48th Brigade is "ready to go to war" more quickly than in the past. The brigade spent nearly five months training at Fort Stewart and at the Army's National Training Center in California before it was ready to deploy to Iraq in 2005.
The Army is forging similar active-duty partnerships for nine additional National Guard units based in Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Texas, which has three units participating. Joining them are two Army Reserve units based in North Carolina and Hawaii.
The pairings are scheduled to last for at least a three-year test period. The Army says more units may be added after the pilot ends in the fall of 2019.
The number of soldiers serving on active-duty in the Army has dropped from 570,000 during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to 473,844 in July. Despite post-war cutbacks the U.S. military remains a premier force, with Congress debating a proposed authorization of $602 billion for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Any National Guard units being paired with active-duty commands will remain available for their states' governors to mobilize in response to natural disasters and other emergencies.
Meanwhile, leaders of the 48th Brigade have already been sharing training reports and planning meetings with the 3rd Infantry. A few additional days may need to be added to the brigade's training schedule, Neal said, but otherwise he expects few major changes.
"It solidifies the relationships that we've already established," Neal said. "In other words, we're getting credit for what we've already been doing."