In the last nine years, over 60,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as "IAs," (individual augmentees), to serve with the U.S. Army in combat areas. The number is decreasing now, with the withdrawal from Iraq. Currently, some 10,000 sailors are serving with army units, in Iraq (the "sand box") and Afghanistan, but also in places like Guantanamo Bay. This small army of sailor "augmentees" are mostly assigned to fill army support jobs overseas. At its peak, two years ago, there were 14,000 sailors serving with the army.
While most of the IAs are volunteers, several years ago the navy began telling sailors who had not been IAs, and were up for a new assignment, that they had to volunteer for an IA tour, or not be able to re-enlist. The navy has been downsizing over the past few years, so they could 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 a month (formerly 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 out into combat, but concentrate on support tasks in well protected bases. This ranges from maintenance to handling logistics.
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. The IAs also help army morale, as they make it possible to not send their own key technical people overseas so often. 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.
The navy has been constantly tweaking the IA program, to make it less disruptive to a sailor's 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 now appears 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 keep sailors attached (for administrative purposes) to unit or ship they were with when they entered the IA program. This insures that their families don't have to move, or worry about administrative screw ups. There have been many other tweaks to navy procedures to accommodate this unique duty, and make it less of an administrative hassle for IA sailors. Perhaps most importantly, the navy saw to it that IA sailors benefitted, and were not penalized for their special service.
By the time the fighting dies down in the sandbox, some twenty percent of sailors will have had the experience of serving with the army. No telling what long term effects that will have. But so far, the navy sees the IA program as a net plus. Sailors know more about the army, and soldiers, by working with sailors, and hearing their tales (many true) of naval life, know more about the navy. This makes it easier for those times, and they are increasingly frequent, where soldiers and sailors have to work together.