National Guard's Post 9-11 Role Uncertain
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
The topic of the meeting being held by the chief of the National Guard's then-brand new homeland security program? Whether there would ever be a major terrorist attack on American soil and what the National Guard could do to stop it.
Mathis recalls an aide interrupting to answer the first question. Nine months into the war on terrorism, the second question is still being debated.
National Guard units serve two commanders in chief their state governor and the president an arrangement that thwarts simple answers. Critics worry that the 488,000-member Guard is stretched too thin. Most of the conversation is taking place at the federal level.
"It's a very fluid situation. These roles are still being defined by the Administration," says Mathis, a 27-year veteran of the New York and Florida Guards.
To laymen, it may seem only fitting to give a leading homeland security role to the descendants of the colonial and state militias that fought Indian tribes, Redcoats and then each other during the Civil War. Based and trained in the states, territories and the District of Columbia, the Guard gets tapped to keep the peace during civil unrest and natural disasters at home.
"We've been involved in some aspect of homeland security for the last 365 years. Because we are a community-based force... we're always going to be called upon by the governors to have a homeland security function," Mathis says.
But in recent years, the Guard has played a prominent role in U.S. commitments overseas in places like Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan as the size of the active military has shrunk. Even before Sept. 11, Guardsmen spent fifteen times the number of days on active duty that they had in the mid-1980s. They staunchly defend their dual duty.
"We need to be a relevant war fighting force," says Lt. Col. Chester C. Carter of the Virginia National Guard.
With its eight-month, $290 million mission to secure the nation's airports after 9/11 accomplished, the Guard is busier than ever meeting traditional obligations while preparing for its undefined part in homeland defense.
More than one in ten Guardsmen are currently deployed at home or abroad. Some say this proportion is too high to sustain for a force of part-time soldiers who balance service with family life and full-time jobs.
"This is a sensitive issue because the Guardsmen feel that their role overseas in support of the active force is the ultimate expression of their patriotism," says Heritage Foundation scholar Jack Spencer. He argues the military has become too dependent upon Guard units that need to be ready to fight at home.
Spencer says the Guard should not be given responsibilities that naturally fall to other agencies, like providing airport or border security. Instead, he says, soldiers who serve their communities as police, firefighters or paramedics could readily help train these groups to respond to a terrorist attack or homefront combat. "They are the perfect agency, for lack of a better word, to be the lead military element for homeland security," he says.
Stephen M. Duncan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, says states must shape the discussion of issues from jurisdiction to the management of soldiers' time.
"In many ways, we're drawing on a clean slate here. What if God forbid we should have an attack that affected four different states and four different governors wanted to react in four different ways using the National Guard. Perhaps the federal government might want to use [it] in a different way ... It's only after we hear from the states and local communities that we can define the needs and define the missions," Duncan says.
Mathis, a self-described one-man think tank on the Guard's role in homeland security before Sept. 11, says state input is more than welcome.
John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices, says governors want the Guard kept flexible enough for state-based missions, but the issue is "sixth or seventh" on a priority list behind needs in public health, emergency communications and intelligence sharing.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Guard has taken on many tasks at home in addition to the high-profile airport security mission.
On Sept. 11, thousands of troops were mobilized or on standby in Maryland, New York and Virginia.
In the months that followed, at least a dozen states asked their adjutant general the state commanding officer to coordinate security efforts.
More than 9,200 troops are involved in the military's Operation Noble Eagle, a homeland defense and civil support initiative best known for its round-the-clock fighter jet patrols over New York City and Washington, D.C.
Units in 26 states have special teams trained to respond to attacks using weapons of mass destruction, a program that began four years ago and accelerated after Sept. 11. Mathis says these teams were activated more than 400 times during last fall's anthrax scare. Similar teams are in the works for five more states.
The Guard must also protect itself. Routine training exercises continue at Fort Pickett, the Virginia Guard's headquarters southwest of Richmond. But entrances to the once wide-open base are studded with concrete barricades and either manned by soldiers or locked up 24 hours a day.
That was unheard of before Sept. 11. No soldiers are permanently quartered at the fort, which is home to hundreds of non-soldiers, a lumber mill and a commercial truck driving school. "You've got civilians in the middle of this who are not used to having their movements constrained," Carter says.
Military police units monitor the National Guard Bureau's offices and the Army and Air National Guards' Readiness Centers outside Washington, D.C. Tighter security prevails at the more than 3,000 Guard bases and armories nationwide.
Yet soldiers say little has changed in their lives since September beyond the quicker pace and a renewed sense of commitment. Specialist Gerard Brown, a married father of two from Newport News, says he's received far more phone calls for volunteer security assignments. It's a strain Brown says he's found easy to bear due to the support of his family and his employer.
"When your home is attacked, you want to do something about it," Brown says.