The Army National Guard has been around for more than 370 years as the first military responder to random attacks on our settlers, national disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or wildfires in the West, and defense missions abroad. The Guard has been regarded as an adjunct force of our Army.
But serving alongside active duty troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 350,000-strong Army National Guard, making up 20 percent of our military forces, has become more than a part of the U.S. Army's strategic reserve.
It took the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to transform the Army National Guard into a highly competent operational force. As first military responder to the terrorists attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Guard — without mobilization — played a crucial role in rapid military homeland security response.
From the beginning, Guardsmen and -women fought and died in Iraq. At one point last year, 50 percent of the ground combat units in Iraq were Army Guard. About 80,000 Guard members were mobilized and engaged at certain times in the Global War on Terror, serving in more than 40 counties in combat and combat support and service.
Our citizen soldiers have always operated under special legal conditions to fulfill their dual role at home and abroad. Under command of their state's governors during domestic emergencies and the president's call-up authority for combat abroad, a new generation of citizen soldiers lives up to the historic image based on the Founding Fathers' spirit of volunteerism.
As Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the energetic chief of the National Guard Bureau, said, "The Guard is the most respected force in hometown America." Though the Guard is still underequipped for the 21st century's demands abroad, Gen. Blum's inspired leadership expanded the Guard and dramatically changed it from a calcified Cold War structure to an agile force "capable of meeting modern asymmetric threats on battlefields abroad and at home."
We are seeing a renewed activist National Guard taking on new responsibilities in response to emergencies at home and abroad. While enhancing the country's military strength, its engagement at home — under control of state governors but paid for with federal funds — ranges from airport security to assistance in securing our Southwest borders. Its well-trained reaction forces claim to be ready and able to provide protection and security anywhere in their respective states at a moment's notice. They boast a capability to respond to an incident within four hours by activating 50 to 75 combat arms personnel.
The Guard prides itself in organizing 10 strategically located weapons of mass destruction civil support teams (CSIs) augmented by chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive enhanced response force packages, or CERFPs.
Though its detractors still view the Guard as a second-class, hand-me-down militia or Sunday soldiers equipped with secondhand weapons, its internal transformation — while fully engaged in a war — has not escaped Congress.
Often left out of crucial deliberations and decisionmaking by the Pentagon on Guard matters, such as the loss of airlift capability in the 2005 Base Alignment and Closure decisions, Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, chairman of the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), insists on Guard empowerment, on being heard, being part of the decisionmaking with a place among the military powerbrokers: the Joint Chiefs of Staffs.
Arguments for modernizing the Guard without losing its independence and identity — as advanced by NGAUS President Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper — have not been lost on the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve. Neither were arguments that an estimated $24 billion depletion of the Army Guard's equipment and stocks, along with other shortfalls, have diminished its capability to respond and fulfill its dual mission.
The Guard adamantly demands deployment of intact brigades and cohesive units and seeks a reversal of language in the '07 National Defense Authorization Act enabling the president to federalize the National Guard during serious natural or manmade (domestic) disasters without the consent of the respective governors.
To the surprise of many, the Democratic leadership of the 110th Congress in control of spending took up this long-neglected issue by embracing the National Guard Empowerment Act of 2007. Sponsored in the Senate by Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Kit Bond, Missouri Republican, the Act would provide the re-emerging reformist Guard with more bureaucratic muscle within the Pentagon by elevating its Chief to a four-star position with a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also would give the National Guard Bureau budgetary power to research, validate and procure essential equipment for the Guard.
As expected, the promotion to four-star general was accepted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But entry to the inner sanctum of the Joint Chiefs was nixed with an agreement to formalize the relationship with the Guard general as principal adviser. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "If you make this individual a member of the Joint Chiefs, you create two armies and two air forces." That is a perplexing remark, considering that the objective is the Guard's integration by admission into the six-member club.
Established in 1947, the JCS consists of a chairman, vice chairman, the chiefs of staff of the Army, Air Force and Navy and the commandant of the Marine Corps, serving as adviser for a quarter-century before being promoted to full member in 1973.
With mobilization calls reduced to 12 months in five-year cycles, the Army and Air National Guard has been able to meet and exceed its goals. As of now, 450,000 guardsmen and their families share the unique Guard experience having a civilian job and family, going to drills, annual training, disaster response and active duty.
As a modern-day militia, the Guard has become a national treasure that deserves to be heard.
Viola Herms Drath is a member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and recipient of the 2005 William J. Flynn Initiative for Peace Award for her seminal work promoting German unification.