Governors Want Say on Guard Changes
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
"We have serious concerns over the repeated lack of consultation between the Department of Defense and the governors," Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), speaking for the National Governors Association (NGA), told a congressional commission working on recommendations for overhauling the National Guard and Reserves.
The governors have butted heads with the federal government over several recent proposals affecting the National Guard. In February governors revolted against President Bush's budget proposal to reduce the Army National Guard by 20,000 soldiers; the plan was abandoned after all 50 governors sent the president a letter of protest. And last year several governors were angered by the Pentagon's recommendations to close National Air Guard units in their states; Connecticut, Illinois and Pennsylvania are suing the Pentagon to block such moves.
Each state has a Guard composed of part-time soldiers who otherwise live as civilians. Most often, the Guard is activated by a governor during state and local emergencies such as floods, riots and power outages. But the president also can activate state Guard troops to serve alongside the active U.S. military and its reserves.
A top issue for the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which began work three months ago, is how to improve the chain of command among federal, state and local authorities, a process the commission said was plagued by "redundancy and inefficiency" during the response to Hurricane Katrina last year.
One solution the commission is considering is whether governors should be given authority to command active duty Armed Forces based or sent to their state to respond to catastrophic emergencies.
"If (governors) are competent to command National Guard troops, which are trained with the same equipment and same level of expertise as active duty troops, then why couldn't governors exercise command and control (of active duty forces)?" said Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.
The 13-member commission also highlighted another major area of contention between governors and the federal government over equipping, training and funding state Guard units.
Frequent deployments overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan have seriously depleted Guard equipment. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Guard units not on active duty had about 75 percent of their equipment available for use. Now they have less than 34 percent, said North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley (D), the lead governor on National Guard issues for the NGA.
President Bush's recent decision to send 6,000 National Guard troops to help stop illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border has added an additional strain to already depleted troops, just as states are preparing to face the next hurricane season, which started June 1.
"Don't have enough soldiers to fight the war? Call up the Guard. Don't have enough border patrols to secure the border? Call up the Guard. We've been stretched way too thin and we just can't continue" to be deployed at these levels, Easley said. More than 80 percent of the of the nation's 460,000 Air and Army National Guard troops have been deployed since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Although some hurricane-prone states, such as North Carolina, have been getting accelerated equipment deliveries from the Pentagon, four of the state's helicopters will not be returned from Iraq until the end of the summer, Easley said.
"Hopefully we can hold the hurricanes off until then," he said.
Last week the commission released a preliminary report outlining changes it would consider rfor the Guard and Reserve forces, including a need to end confusion over which branch of government is in charge during catastrophic disasters.
The report did not spell out a solution, although after Katrina others have suggested giving the Pentagon primary authority over the Guard during domestic emergencies, a power now reserved to governors. Minner and Easley said governors will not give up their authority over the Guard and instead favor adding the power to take charge of active duty forces.
"(The governors) know what's needed in cases of emergency. We've developed our homeland security plans, and we've got the maps and the know-how to respond to emergencies in our states," Minner said.
The commission's sweeping review of the Guard and Reserve also will consider upgrading benefits and compensation for troops and incentives for employers to hire Guard members; lengthening the 39-day training period for part-time troops, and finding a way to balance the Guard's dual role in the overseas war on terror and security and emergency duties at home.
The commission is expected to wrap up its work with recommendations to Congress by March 2007.