* U.S. can't go to war without civilian soldiers
* 70 percent of medical units, 75 percent of engineers
* Will reservists, employers back post-war deployments?
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have given the United States the best-trained military reserve in its history.
The challenge for Lieutenant General Jack Stultz, the Army Reserve chief, is how to keep it that way.
With U.S. forces scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the year and drawing down in Afghanistan, Stultz worries the force could go back to being a cadre of weekend warriors who train a couple days each month and two weeks in the summer.
That was fine in the days of the first Gulf War, when the reserves had months to train before going into battle. These days, they are an integral part of U.S. military forces and must be ready to hit the ground running.
So Stultz is determined to keep them what they are now -- citizen soldiers who can move seamlessly from their civilian jobs to their battlefield role, taking the place of regular duty troops without needing weeks of training.
"We cannot put this operational capability we now have in the reserve back on the shelf," he said in a recent interview. "So the challenge I've got is ... how am I going to continue to keep it trained and ready in an era of budget constraints?"
Reserve chiefs like Stultz haven't always had that worry. The 392,200-member reserves are just one component of the U.S. military, along with the 1.4 million-strong active duty force and the 464,900-member National Guard.
For much of the time since its founding in 1908, the Army Reserve has been treated as a strategic reserve -- a force to be tapped only in times of national crisis.
"I hope I never have to use it. It's my force of last resort," Stultz said.
NO WAR WITHOUT THE RESERVES
The transformation of the reserves into an operational force -- active units rotated in and out of service as needed -- began in the 1990s but accelerated with the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The change marked a "paradigm shift" for most of the military services, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a 2006 report.
"Employing the reserve component as a part of the operational force is mandatory, not a choice. DoD cannot meet today's operational requirements without drawing significantly on the reserve component," said the report, whose authors included Christine Wormuth, now an adviser to President Barack Obama at the National Security Council, and Michele Flournoy, now undersecretary of defense for policy.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed that view at his recent confirmation hearing.
"We cannot go anyplace -- cannot -- without the Guard and Reserve. We've built our structures that way," he said.
About 70 percent of the military's medical units are in the Guard and Reserve. So are 75 percent of the engineers, 80 percent of the transport units, 85 percent of the civil affairs personnel and 70 percent of the military police.
So if the military is going to take casualties, move supplies, build bridges and airfields and guard installations, it's going to need the reserves.
'DON'T WASTE MY TIME'
In that context, Stultz's job is to keep members of the Army Reserve trained, ready to deploy even after the wars end.
To meet those needs, he plans to continue the current rotation cycle, with reservists available for duty for a year and then home four years. Some 25,000 reservists are on duty at any given time.
"When I talk to soldiers in the Reserve and say, 'What do you need? What do you want?,' they tell me two or three things," Stultz said. "'I need some predictability because I've got another life. But I want to be utilized. So use me. Don't just train me and never use me. And the third thing is, 'Don't waste my time.'"
If Stultz has his way, reservists wouldn't be called up for a full year but would be used more extensively than they were before the wars - probably for several months at a time.
He said he would like to see them engaged in security cooperation missions with other militaries.
So instead of being sent to a war zone during their regular rotation, medical units might be deployed to another country to help run a vaccination program or an engineering unit might go to a place like Haiti, still recovering from a devastating earthquake, to help build schools and clinics, Stultz said.
But after a decade of war and with a tough economy at home, the question is whether reservists, their families and their employers would be willing to continue their high level of military involvement even after the wars end.
"My sense is that ... in many cases they are not," said retired Major General David Bockel, the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, a professional group for former and current military officers.
Bockel cited a record 500 queries to the association's legal office last month seeking help with employment issues. He said military families were under strain, suicide rates were high and unemployment levels among reservists were about 15 percent, well above the national average.
"This situation now has been going on for over 10 years, which is the longest we've ever been engaged in a conflict," he said. "It just takes its toll in a number of different places."
But Bockel said given the high global demand for U.S. military forces in the 21st century, "Stultz is right on track" in seeking new ways to keep the reserves well-trained.
"This is the environment we are in ... and it ain't going to end right away," he said. (Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)