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FORCES PULLED PAST THEIR BREAKING POINT

A congressional report two years in the making certifies what many Americans already know: The nation has stretched its National Guard and reservists too far.

The military has taken advantage of Reserve forces to the point it is ill-prepared to both fight a sustained war overseas and respond to a natural disaster or terrorist strike at home. The report is a wake-up call to the nation to invest more in the Guard and Reserves, better integrate them with active forces and address the strains these demands have on reservists and their families.

The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves issued its report last week to Congress, calling for 95 improvements to the way the nation organizes, trains and equips its Reserve corps. Many measures focused on the basics - giving reservists new training, educational and professional opportunities. But the overarching theme was bigger: The Reserves are an essential component of the nation's armed forces, and more should be done to clarify their role and elevate their status as servicemen.

The panel said the current pattern of drawing on the Reserves for active duty "is endangering" their ability to respond to emergencies at home. Their contribution to the nation's defense since 9/11 has risen almost fivefold; at their peak use in 2004, reservists made up a third of all U.S. forces in Iraq. Yet the notion of deploying them in continuing combat roles "developed almost by default," the commission noted, without any idea whether "the public or its elected representatives stand behind" the decision. Meanwhile, the nation lacks a sufficiently trained force to respond to a biological, nuclear or chemical attack - "an appalling gap," the commission found, that places the nation and its citizens at risk.

This report could help start a national conversation on the Reserves' role at home and abroad and readiness in general. The commission will ask congressional budget experts to estimate how much money this added training and equipment would cost. The panel also called for new strategies to make deployments easier on reservists, their families and employers. Helping these service members better balance their duty and civilian lives is not merely a hardship issue - it affects the support communities and the private sector, and it contributes to the health of the Guard itself.

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