State Defense Forces Grow, Project New Image

 

January 5 When Hurricane Isabel tore through the Mid-Atlantic region in September 2003, 1,100 members of the Virginia National Guard mobilized to evacuate residents, clear roads and distribute water and ice.

Gov. Mark Warner (D) also activated 27 members of a lesser-known group, the Virginia Defense Force. But in contrast to the National Guard troops, Defense Force members were stationed at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Richmond, out of the public eye.

The Virginia Defense Force, with more than 600 active members, is one of 19 state guard organizations with a total membership of about 12,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

They are all-volunteer groups that generally train about once a month to assist the National Guard with local or statewide emergencies or provide support to Guard members and their families. They are given military titles but usually have to buy their uniforms, which differ only slightly from active federal and National Guard uniforms.

"We are the official reserve of the Army National Guard," said Paul Passink, a lieutenant colonel and spokesman for the Virginia Defense Force.

More recently, Alaska, state defense force members have been enlisted to help with security of the state's oil pipeline, according to an article in the Anchorage Daily News

Unlike the National Guard, state defense forces serve only at the order of state governors and cannot be activated for federal duties. Most groups do not train with weapons, said Byers W. Coleman, who carries the rank of colonel and is the executive director of the State Guard Association of the United States.

Many of the groups have had enormous growth since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Coleman said. In his home state of Georgia, for example, membership jumped from 225 to about 700 "in just a few months."

State guards in Tennessee, Virginia, New York, South Carolina and Puerto Rico also have grown significantly, Coleman said.

Members often have served in the active military or reserve and miss the esprit de corps and public service, said William A. Aleshire, a colonel and spokesman for the Maryland Defense Force.

Despite their growing popularity, the public is largely unaware of state defense forces, said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League, who has researched the history of both the official and unofficial state militias.

The modern state guards evolved from the tradition of state militias of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pitcavage said. While conscripted militias eventually disappeared, voluntary forces evolved into the National Guard with its dual state and federal roles.

However, states were left without domestic forces to deal with civil unrest and natural disasters when large numbers of National Guard troops were activated for both World Wars. So state militia forces were resurrected to take the place of the Guard, and disbanded after both of those wars.

The concept of a widespread civil defense force reemerged early in the first term of President Ronald Reagan, said John R. Brinkerhoff, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was acting associate director for national preparedness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1981 to 1983.

After several states reinstituted their defense forces in the late 1980s and early '90s, several media reports detailed some members' paramilitary activities and connections with extremists.

"There was a renegade unit in Arlington (Texas) that wanted to do special operations," said Lt. Col. John Stanford, a spokesman for the Texas National Guard and Texas State Guard. That group was disbanded in 1985, marking "the beginning of a long series of changes emphasizing community service," he said.

In 1990, the Virginia General Assembly launched an investigation of its state defense force on reports that "a brigade was saving money to buy a tank and other units were practicing ad hoc drug raids," according to a 1991 article in The Nation.

"We were getting complaints," said Gladys Keating, a former Fairfax County, Va., delegate who led a reorganization of the Virginia Defense Force. "We had one guy walking around thinking he was a reincarnation of Patton."

But the problem was mostly lack of oversight, Keating explained: "Nobody had come down and given them a good explanation of what they should be about."

Utah has not had a state guard since then-Gov. Norm Bangerter dismantled the group in 1987 amid media reports that convicted felons and members of the white supremacist Aryan Nations had infiltrated the organization, were training with live ammunition and were planning to gather intelligence on political groups.

The negative press of the past has led to a new non-military mission for state guards, although a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would expand federal training and equipment available to state defense forces for homeland security.

"We've re-evaluated our focus," said Aleshire of the Maryland Defense Force, which is recruiting doctors, lawyers and chaplains to provide more professional services to National Guard members and their families.

Similarly, the Texas State Guard is forming a new medical unit of doctors to help the public in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, said Col. Stanford, the unit's spokesman.

State guard officials also emphasize that members go through a thorough vetting, including criminal background checks.

"We need to make sure we don't get embarrassed by someone who comes in with their own agenda," said Coleman of the State Guard Association. "And we do lose people because they think we're something we're not."

Texas' Stanford added: "We want to make sure these folks look good and ... perform missions. They are community servants, not soldiers."

 
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