The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had an interesting impact on the U.S. Navy. Since September 11, 2001 over 78,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as "IAs," (individual augmentees), overseas, mainly with the U.S. Army, in combat areas. Most (69 percent) served between 2006 and 2001, the periods of most intensive combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. While most IAs are glad to get back to their navy jobs many have grown nostalgic for what amounted to the most exciting, and often scary, time they have spent in uniform. Some had to stand guard duty on the perimeter of bases that were attacked from time to time. Others volunteered to do that, or the even riskier job of convoy security. While IAs served as support personnel, and had a much lower casualty rate than combat troops (like marines or army infantry) there was no mistaking that they were in a combat zone. There were daily reminders that danger was all about, especially if they traveled “outside the wire” (outside a base). IAs who served with the marines often had the most intense (and dangerous) experiences of all. This was especially true of corpsmen (medics) who often went into combat with marines. The many navy medical personnel who were IAs got the most out of their experience, at least in terms of how that exposure to lots of combat wounds could be put to good use if these men and women were on a warship that suffered catastrophic damage (in combat or not). Normally navy medical personnel afloat don’t see a lot of really bad injures of the kind that are common in combat.
The number of IAs is decreasing rapidly now especially with the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2011. There are still about 1,200 navy IAs in Afghanistan but over the last 13 years most served in Iraq. During the peak years over 10,000 sailors are serving with army units in Iraq (the "sand box") and Afghanistan, but also in places like Guantanamo Bay. The peak year was 2008 when 14,000 sailors served as IAs, mostly with the army.
The U.S. Navy gradually made it easier for sailors and their families during periods of IA service. Among the most important changes were the ones that had the navy command or ship that the IA belonged to before leaving for IA service maintain its relationship with the sailors’ family during the IA service, ensuring continuation of navy benefits and easier dealings with the navy bureaucracy. The rules were eased so that IAs could move their families to a new base. After the IA has completed his (or her) assignment, they got 60 days leave, which helped IAs cope with the aftereffects of the sometimes stressful duty with the army or marines in a combat zone, and help the family reconnect. Rules were changed so that prospective IAs could work with the navy personnel specialists who give out these assignments to select, when possible, time and location. For example, sailors could apply for an IA job up to a year before they shipped out.
While most of the IAs were volunteers, in 2007 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 if they wanted to re-enlist and get that new job. The navy had been downsizing after 2001 so they could get away with this. Despite the mandatory IA service for some, the navy still had no problem getting the new recruits it needed.
The IA work involved six, or, more usually, twelve month assignments. Most of the IAs possessed skills similar to those performed by soldiers. The IAs got a month (formerly 17 days) of training at an army or marine base, to familiarize them with army or marine procedures, weapons, and the specific dangers they might encounter. Most of the sailors experienced combat but concentrated on support tasks in well protected bases. This ranged from maintenance to handling logistics. The sailors were there to free up army personnel for things like base security and other more dangerous tasks. The IAs also help army morale, as they make it possible to not send key army technical people overseas so often. Most sailors volunteered because they wanted to get involved. As the old saying goes, "it's the only war we've got," and this one did not involve a lot of naval action, at least not the really dangerous kind.
The navy was constantly tweaking the IA program, to make it less disruptive to a sailor's career. This included awarding a lot of Combat Action Ribbons. This is an award established in the 1960s, but had not been seen much, at least for ground combat, since the Vietnam War ended. Now, with so many IA sailors seeing ground combat (usually as EOD technicians clearing roadside bombs, or working convoy escort duty), the blue-yellow-red-white ribbon appears on the uniforms of thousands of sailors.
Navy personnel procedures have also been adjusted several times to accommodate IAs. 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 and the need for IAs disappears, 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.