DRAPER — A year-end snapshot of the Utah National Guard shows the state has an interest in the regime change in North Korea, the end of the war in Iraq and the continuing conflict in Afghanistan.
"I think at any given time you'll find Utah Guardsmen on virtually every continent," said Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, Utah's adjutant general.
The Korean region is on edge following the news that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack on Saturday. Utah Guard members are in South Korea on training exercises right now, and that activity is expected to continue.
"Obviously North Korea is a situation that bears watching. We've had a long training relationship with the various U.S. Army units in South Korea over the years," the two-star general said. "We'll watch it. Obviously it's an unstable regime — certainly more unstable in times of succession like this. We'll see. I don't think anyone who wears this uniform expects much improvement ... but we'll hope for some."
Utah's military involvement in Korea "shouldn't be viewed as a build-up or part of a larger response to this," Tarbet said of the transition there. "It's simply training."
The Guard's larger focus this week is on the last of its soldiers returning from Iraq, where the last American troops pulled out on Sunday.
Members of the 222nd Field Artillery Battalion deployed to Iraq for the past six months were expected to arrive in Salt Lake City on nine different flights Monday evening and a number of flights Tuesday. One final soldier, an officer, was expected to be the last Utah Guard member from the Iraq deployment home — on Wednesday.
Was the effort in Iraq a success? Tarbet said he'll leave policy analysis to the politicians, but he is proud of the way his troops carried out their assigned missions.
"We salute and serve, and that's what was done here. We served with great pride and I'm very proud of the work of all of our services — very proud of the work of the National Guard there."
The Guard was tasked for battle duty in Iraq for Operation Desert Storm 20 years ago and has been embroiled in Iraq continuously for most of the past decade. New recruits joining the Guard grew up with news and images of war in Iraq. Tarbet said there was a time he expected such protracted battle duty would take its toll on the Guard, potentially drawing its numbers to half strength.
But that is not the case. Today the Guard's ranks are "100 percent plus" and strong, he said.
About 700 Army and Air National Guard troops were actively deployed during 2011, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number will ebb over the holidays but quickly surge when about 375 Apache attack helicopter soldiers originally slated to go to Iraq last year assemble for a deployment to Afghanistan on Jan. 15.
Forces from many states have seen the conflict in Afghanistan as a side show to the war in Iraq, but not Utah. "We have always been, as a state, active in Afghanistan. Right from the jump. Early on. Our special forces units and a small engineering detachment were there early in the war," Tarbet said.
Eliminating one theater of conflict will likely stretch out the time between deployments, but isn't likely to reduce the number of Utah troops involved during the coming year. Tarbet estimates 700 to 800 Utah Guard members will be deployed during 2012.
Beyond the coming year in Afghanistan: "We'll be at that a while if we expect any promising outcome."
The Guard also has its eye on policymakers in Washington, where the Defense Department is under orders from the White House to cut its budget by hundreds of billions of dollars.
Those cuts could actually mean more activity, more responsibility, for the National Guard.
"The National Guard is an enormous value for the taxpayer. Our units cost approximately 25 percent to maintain (compared to) our active-duty counterparts," the general said. "I think the budgets in the future will drive more responsibility to the Guard and Reserve. It simply has to."