November 18, 2009: The U.S. Navy has a growing internal conflict regarding the IA (individual augmentee) program (which sends volunteers to assist the army in combat zones). Shortages of sailors for manning ships and shore installations is increasingly being blamed on the IA program. The public is generally unaware of how involved the U.S. Navy is with the ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, over 10,000 sailors are serving with army units, mainly in Iraq (the "sand box"), but also in places like Guantanamo Bay. This small army of sailor "augmentees" are assigned to fill army support jobs overseas. This is considered critical because the army doesn't have enough troops to keep units manned overseas. This is a big problem in combat zones, where it's long been known that, without a year or more back home between combat tours, repeated duty on the battlefield will burn out even the most stalwart soldiers.
In the last eight years, over 60,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as "IAs". The number has been increasing, and it's no longer voluntary. While most of the IAs are still volunteers, many who have not been IAs, and are up for a new assignment, are being told to do an IA tour, or not be able to re-enlist. The navy has been downsizing over the past few years, so they can get away with this. The navy still has no problem getting the recruits it needs.
The IA work involves six, or, more usually, twelve month assignments. Most of the IAs possess skills similar to those performed by soldiers. The IAs get 17 days of training at an army base, to familiarize them with army procedures, weapons, and the specific dangers they will encounter. Most of the sailors never get into combat, but concentrate on support tasks in well protected bases. This ranges from maintenance to handling logistics. However, many navy EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) technicians serve in the danger zones, taking care of roadside bombs, and other dangerous devices. But mostly, the sailors free up army personnel for things like base security and maintenance. The IAs also help army morale, as they make it possible to not send key technical people overseas so much.
Most sailors volunteer because they want to get involved. As the old saying goes, "it's the only war we've got," and this one does not involve a lot of naval action. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are usually more sailors ashore serving with the "narmy" than with the fleet offshore.
The navy has been constantly tweaking the IA program, to make it less disruptive to a sailors career. This includes awarding a lot of Combat Action Ribbons. This is an award established in the 1960s, but not seen much, at least for ground combat, since the Vietnam war ended. Now, with so many sailors seeing ground combat (usually as EOD technicians clearing roadside bombs, or working convoy escort duty), the blue-yellow-red-white ribbon has now appeared on the uniforms of thousands of sailors.
The navy personnel procedures have also been adjusted several times to accommodate IAs. The latest wrinkle is to select sailors for IA duty at the end of a tour of duty (on a ashore or on a ship), so that they have more time to arrange their next regular assignment. By the time the fighting dies down in the sandbox, 15-20 percent of sailors will have had the experience of serving with the army. No telling what long term effects that will have. Even the growing complaints are countered by the many sailors (over ten percent of those now in the navy) who have served, and are proud of their time spent with the army.