National Guard Vows to Even Out Burden on States

 

The National Guard, whose citizen soldiers have been dispatched for lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is drawing up plans to balance the number of troops from each state during future deployments so no state is left short-handed in an emergency at home.

Under proposed plans, at least half of each state's Guard troops would be kept from active duty at any one time and major deployments would happen on a more predictable schedule.

The changes are a response to states' concerns over the high number of Guard members sent overseas in President Bush's war on terror and are part of a new vision for the organization, said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that oversees Guard activities.

Each state has a Guard, a force of part-time soldiers who serve at the governor's command but who otherwise live as civilians. Most often, the Guard is activated during state and local emergencies such as floods, riots and power outages. For example, more than 1,100 Virginia National Guard members helped out when Hurricane Isabel struck in September 2003.

But the president also can activate state Guard troops to serve alongside the active U.S. military and its reserves.

About 25 percent of the nation's 460,000 Air and Army National Guard troops currently are deployed for federal duty. But some states have contributed up to 75 percent of their Guard troops at one time for the war on terror.

"Governors and Adjutants General have told me this is unacceptable," Blum told governors during a Feb. 22 session of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

Monica Fisher, spokeswoman for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), said it is a testament to the state Guard's abilities that more than half its soldiers have been activated or are slated for federal duty. But it is also a detriment to the unit's ability to respond to state emergencies, she said.

Iowa is one of nine states where more than half of the Guard is on active duty or on notice to be called up, according to a February 18 report by the National Guard. Others are Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota, Washington and West Virginia.

Thirty-three states or territories currently have 20 percent to 49 percent of their Guard forces active or alerted, eight have activated between 10 percent and 20 percent of their Guard and four have less than 10 percent active or on alert.

While the changes are meant to bring equity to the deployment process, they are also further evidence that joining the Guard is no longer a way to avoid military combat. Nowadays, the U.S. military relies on the Guard for specific tasks crucial to combat missions.

Michael P. Cline, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard, said expectations changed dramatically with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991. "This is not your daddy's National Guard," he said.

With the end of the Cold War and the advent of a global war on terror, Guard members must be prepared for a wider variety of missions and duties: within three years, 80 percent of Guard members will be combat veterans as well as homeland security veterans, Blum said.

To meet its goal, the Guard is planning to change the training and makeup of state units to ensure that half of each state's forces is available at any given time. Under the proposed plans, a quarter of each state's Guard would train for active duty and another quarter would be deployed. National Guard units in each state also will have a more balanced mix of capabilities.

Troop needs are sent from field commanders to the National Guard Bureau, which decides the units to be called up for active duty. Currently, state units specialize in particular skills and so large portions may be called up when those skills are needed. For instance, Puerto Rico's National Guard has a large number of military police that have been activated to help keep the peace in Iraq.

Maj. Gen. John E. Blair, adjutant general of New Hampshire, currently has 65 percent of his Guard members activated or alerted for duty and said he looks forward to the changes.

"Our problem is, we're heavy in field artillery," a skill needed for the ongoing mission in Iraq, Blair explained.

Even with 65 percent of Guard members on active duty or alerted, the New Hampshire Guard still is able to respond to a state emergency, Blair said.

The Guard transformation also is aimed at governors' concerns about the length and frequency of deployments. "Some families are in serious financial jeopardy," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). Guard members usually earn less on duty than in their civilian jobs.

Governors also have expressed concern about a mass exodus of Guard members after they return from overseas missions. Guard members are required to serve for 90 days after they return from combat, so it is too early to tell if a large number of troops are planning to leave, Guard officials said.

In the future, the goal will be to send Army National Guard troops for a major deployment of 12 to 18 months only once ever six years. Under the proposal, Air National Guard members could be deployed every 15 months.

Plans call for deployments to be more predictable so that states, employers and families will be able to plan ahead for a Guard member's active duty, said Reginald Saville, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau.

What is not predictable is when the National Guard hopes to complete its rebalancing act. No final date for achieving Blum's plan has been set, Saville said. "In a sense, the rebalancing has already begun." In theory, troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will have completed their combat duty, he said.

Blum told governors: "The end-state goal will take some time to achieve." 

 
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