Guard Pushes Ahead on Transformation

 

Five years after being called into an unprecedented combat role on two fronts in the war against terrorism, the National Guard is doing a better job of balancing its responsibilities overseas with its traditional emergency-response duties at home, Guard officials say.

While more than 250,000 citizen soldiers of the National Guard have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date, Guard leaders say they have "come a long way" on a plan to transform the way the force of roughly 460,000 troops is managed and deployed.  

The overhaul, launched in 2003 by Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum , commander of the National Guard, is meant to ensure that states can cope with the prolonged absence of tens of thousands of their troops. The Guard traditionally has been called on to respond to domestic crises, but recently has made up as much as half of all ground forces fighting in Iraq - and often has paid the same heavy price. According to Guard statistics, 532 of its men and women have been killed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the recent changes that are being hailed by Guard officials as an improvement: a more equitable distribution of the deployment burden placed on each state at any one time; better inter-state communication among Guard units at home; and earlier notice for troops of impending foreign assignments, allowing soldiers, families and state emergency managers more time to prepare for their departure.

  DEFEDERALIZING THE GUARD?

A major component of the overhaul has been what the Guard has characterized as a "top to bottom rebalancing" of the wartime deployment burden on states. Blum, who in 2004 noted that up to 75 percent of some states' National Guard troops were deployed at the same time, has followed through on a promise to governors that at least half of each state's force remains at home at all times.

Indeed, no state currently has more than 40 percent of its total Guard force deployed, according to government statistics, and in the past three years, only one state - Hawaii - has had more than half of its troops deployed at once. That was because the state volunteered extra troops, according to the Guard.

"We've made great strides," said Emanuel Pacheco, a spokesman with the National Guard Bureau , the Department of Defense agency responsible for managing the Guard. At the same time, Pacheco said, "there's still a lot of room to work on this."

The domestic readiness of the National Guard has been a flashpoint in state-federal relations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when state-run Guard forces were federalized to fight in two overseas countries simultaneously. The large-scale deployments - in some cases lasting as long as 22 months - prompted governors nationwide to demand changes so states would not be unprepared for domestic disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a tornado that decimated the town of Greensburg, Kan., last year.  

To be sure, concerns over the Guard remain. Deployments are substantial - the Pentagon announced this week that about 14,000 National Guard troops from nine states could be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan within the next two years - and a shortage of reliable equipment is a top concern for state and military officials. Nationally, it is estimated that the Guard has only about 40 percent of the equipment it needs at home, as deployed units who take vehicles and other equipment overseas often are forced to leave it behind.

In spite of those challenges, Guard leaders in the Department of Defense say - and many of their state counterparts agree - that significant progress has been made in the years since the overhaul began. Among the most important successes has been the redistribution and rotation of deployments among all states.

Along the Gulf Coast , where Hurricane Katrina caused hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars of damage, almost all Guard forces are available to governors as hurricane season approaches next month. In Louisiana , only 265 of the state's 10,000 Air and Army National Guard members currently are deployed; in Florida , about 200 of the state's total force of 12,000 are away, according to statistics provided by the two states.  

In states where the percentage of forces deployed or being deployed is much higher than on the Gulf Coast , however, concerns remain among state officials and residents alike. New Jersey , for example, is preparing to deploy nearly half of its National Guard to Iraq later this year, and activists have pressured Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to speak out against the deployment, circulating a petition to stop the departure of the troops. Corzine himself has criticized the heavy use of the state's Guard.

"The governor has said on more than one occasion that the Guard continues to be overused, and that in itself remains a problem. And it does raise some concerns," said Jim Gardner, a spokesman for Corzine.  

In the states that were informed this week of upcoming deployments, meanwhile, Guard officials have consciously given troops much earlier notice than in the past so authorities can better prepare for their absence. In Vermont , for example, officials announced that up to 1,900 members of the Army National Guard face deployment to Afghanistan - but not until 2010.

That large window of time will allow the state's Army Guard to train its Air Guard counterparts, who are not being called up, on how to operate the ground troops' equipment and how to carry out specific emergency duties that normally are reserved for the ground force, said Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, a Vermont National Guard spokesman.  

"The Air National Guard will very quickly be able to step in" during emergencies, Goodrow said.

Guard leaders also have sought to develop better lines of communication among all state Guards as the force's overhaul continues. Over the last several years, every state has consolidated separate Air and Army National Guard headquarters, and states are making more use of an emergency equipment-sharing program known as EMAC, or the Emergency Management Assistance Compact , according to Pacheco.  

Oregon National Guard Adjutant General Raymond F. Rees , the state's top military official, said the National Guard Bureau also has made steady progress to ensure that state units are properly equipped when they need to be. When he took over as Oregon's adjutant general in 2005, Rees said, "it was just mind-boggling to grasp the enormity of what had taken place, as they had moved all this equipment to units going overseas, and none of it was coming back."

While it remains a problem that could take years to fix while Congress considers an increase in funding, Rees said "there's been a real understanding to link arms, and great cooperation (among) the adjutants general and with the Guard Bureau to help fill shortfalls."

 
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