By Brig. Gen. Robert B. Newman, Jr.
I had the opportunity to brief the Public Safety Subcommittee of the Virginia General Assembly in late February, and I wanted to share the substance of that briefing with the entire Virginia National Guard. I want to review some of the many significant accomplishments of the Virginia National Guard and look ahead to the future of the organization.
While our Soldiers and Airmen have accomplished many amazing things, it is important to understand that the Virginia Guard of today is not the Virginia Guard of the future. Organizations that do not respond to their environment are destined to fail. The Virginia National Guard has a rich history and long tradition of successful service to community, commonwealth and country, and we will adapt and change to make sure that we continue that success as we prepare to face new challenges.
We are a nation at war, but for most of the country, that involves no real sacrifice or hardship. For most Americans, life goes on as it did five years ago or 10 years ago, and besides what they see on the news, they have very little idea of the sacrifices that are being made in the cause of freedom and serving our country’s national interests. In the Virginia National Guard, we are well aware of that sacrifice, and we are focused on being able to accomplish our missions to the utmost of our ability.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Virginia Guard has been in reactionary mode. We quickly mobilized Soldiers and Airmen to guard airports, nuclear facilities and key government installations. Nearly 5,000 Soldiers of the Virginia Army National Guard and over 1,000 Airmen of the Virginia Air National Guard have entered active federal service in support Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Air Expeditionary Force operations. The toll on the organization has been significant, and it has made us very aware of our strengths and weaknesses.
At the time of the terrorist attacks, units in the Virginia Guard were organized, trained and resourced to fight the battle of the Cold War, and now we have to adapt and change to fight the new threats that we face.
The entire Army, not just the National Guard, is transforming into a lighter, faster and leaner fighting force. This force will be more balanced, and better able to respond to the challenges we know we will face in the future. Toward meeting that challenge, I have four transformational missions that I want to accomplish during my term of service.
First, I want to successfully transform the Virginia Guard into a true “joint force” capable of exercising command and control of both active and Guard forces during times of emergency. Second, I want to transform the Virginia Army and Air National Guard in ways that will enable the Commonwealth to benefit from forces that will provide capabilities to assist in fighting our nation’s wars and protect Virginia from both natural and man-made disasters. Third, I want to transform the way we recruit and retain our forces fully recognizing that if we fail at this mission, we will realize a substantial reduction in the Virginia National Guard’s end strength. Lastly, I want to reinforce or if necessary transform what I call “Guard Care.” Taking care of our people is more than giving them the training and equipment to carryout their missions. It also means caring for their families when they are deployed and working with their employers to ensure that when they return to their civilian lives that their jobs are protected and they can be assured that they won’t suffer retribution as a result of their service.
Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, uses a sports analogy of “home” and “away” games to describe the role of the National Guard in defending our homeland and the ideals we hold dear.
The “Away Game” refers to our scheduled deployments for operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each unit of the Virginia Army and Air National Guard must be staffed, equipped, maintained and trained to be fully prepared to mobilize, deploy, return to home station and reconstitute for future operations. Recent history has taught us that in the Army Guard, we do not have the luxury of having six months to prepare for a deployment. That was the Cold War model, and things have changed.
I have charged each level of the chain of command to carry out its responsibilities to make sure we can successfully accomplish that mission.
We will also be faced with unscheduled “Home Games” like the terrorist attacks of September 11. The harsh reality is that there are two high profile potential targets either in or near Virginia: the National Capitol Region and the military installations in the Tidewater area like the Norfolk Naval Base and Langley Air Force Base. We must be prepared to respond in support of state and federal emergencies, whether they be the acts of terrorists or natural disaster.
The only way to fully prepare for both the missions at home and abroad is to continue to train and operate in a joint environment. Whether our Soldiers and Airmen are deployed to Afghanistan or supporting relief after a natural disaster, we will be working with other services and other agencies. We must be able to communicate across component and agency lines, and I have been encouraging commanders to seek out joint operations training at all levels.
Our Soldiers and Airmen have taken great care of Virginia and our country’s national interests, and we must do the same to take care of them. Our “Guard Care” program is not just taking care of the Soldiers and Airmen, but also their families and employers as well. We have to take care of them first because it is the right thing to do, and second because it just makes sense. Our members can’t be effective when they are doing their job if they are worried about their family or whether or not their employer will be supportive of their service in the Guard.
In return for the service they give, our Soldiers and Airmen are entitled to the very best care we can give them. We must make sure that we “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” when it comes to taking care of our people, their families and employers. To say that “Guard Care” is a priority and then acting in a totally opposite manner is simply not acceptable.
Community organizations and individual volunteerism have been key to successful unit and family readiness. During our recent deployments, they have contributed in numerous ways and supported activities generously. From this support our members and their families have received care packages, re-deployment parades, child care, home repair, vehicle repairs, assistance with transportation needs, and other things too numerous to count. However, we’re looking to improve these efforts with volunteer training, establishing a resource database, and enhanced command emphasis for on-going readiness.
We have turned the corner in our recruiting efforts, and now we are focusing our attention on retention and keeping the Soldiers and Airmen in the Guard. We greatly improved our efforts in getting new members into the Guard by hiring more recruiters, and making sure all our recruiters receive the training and resources they need to accomplish their mission.
We are going to take the same approach with retention by making sure that unit commanders have the training and resources that they need to help make sure our Soldiers and Airmen stay in the Guard. We are emphasizing sponsorship programs and making sure our leaders are responsive to the needs of their personnel and provide them great training opportunities to challenge them and make them feel like what they are doing is worthwhile.
Retention is also a by-product of taking good care of our Soldiers and Airmen and their families and employers. If their experience in serving in the Guard is a good one, then they will be more inclined to continue to serve.
If we take care of Soldiers and Airmen, their families and employers and encourage them to continue to serve in the Guard, we need to make sure we have the kind of units, resources and training to provide the kind of support that Virginia will need in a time of crisis. We need to transform and have the kind of units that will be able to effectively respond to attacks.
Infantry Soldiers from Virginia stormed the beaches of Normandy and paved the way for Allied Forces to restore freedom to France and helped move towards victory in World War II. That spirit of Omaha Beach lives on in our infantry Soldiers today, but the reality is that Virginia needs more than just infantry Soldiers to be prepared to respond to the threats we face. We need engineers, military police, truck drivers and medical and health care workers as well.
We are moving in the right direction to get the kinds of units that we need in Virginia. Units like the 34th Civil Support Team provides us with the capabilities to provide rapid response in the event of an attack using weapons of mass destruction.
We need to be able to care for our wounded, decontaminate after a chemical or biological attack, transport necessary supplies or people and secure our highways. We need to have a balanced force of combat arms, combat support and combat service support units so that Virginia is organized, equipped and trained to answer the call to duty, whether it is to respond to a natural disaster or an attack on our homeland and the ideals we hold dear.
In the coming months and years, the Virginia Guard will continue to adapt and change to make sure we can meet the challenges that will face us. Our tradition of serving community, commonwealth and country dates back almost 400 years to 1607, and we will continue that tradition to ensure the continued safety and freedom of those we serve.