National Guard Bureau Chief Visits Deployed Guardsmen
By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait, Sep. 17, 2003 The chief of the National Guard Bureau visited National Guard troops on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan this month.
"The American people are proud of you, and I am proud of you," Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum told about 2,000 Army and Air Guard troops helping to fight the global war against terrorism nearly half a world away from their families and homes.
"There has never been a more important time to be in the National Guard, because we are defending our homeland," Blum told numerous small and large groups of Guard people he met with in Qatar and Kuwait, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, during a fast-paced, eight-day trip.
Some 29,000 National Guard troops -- including members of infantry and signal battalions, transportation and military police companies and engineers -- are serving in Iraq and Kuwait, said Col. Glenn Walker, chief of the Army National Guard affairs office in Kuwait.
Except for a few meetings with officials, such as Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. Central Command's combatant commander, Blum devoted his time to talking with and listening to citizen soldiers and airmen participating in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
It was his most extensive overseas trip in the nearly five months he has been the Guard Bureau's 34th chief.
Blum shook hands with every Guard man and woman he saw. He presented Bronze Star Medals to six soldiers in the Indiana Army Guard's 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry for their combat service in Iraq. He promoted one junior officer to captain, and he gave his personal coin to troops who have made significant contributions to the war effort.
"I think his visit helps highlight the fact that we're here, and that he wants to help us," said Oregon Army Guard Spc. Amy Swanson at a former Iraqi air base.
Blum said he made the trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where Army and Air National Guard troops have been killed in action for the first time since the Vietnam War, for two reasons.
The former combatant commander in Bosnia said he wanted to send a message that he will find and visit National Guard troops wherever they are serving. He also wanted to engage in an open dialogue with the people who have been deployed this year because of the war in Iraq, so he can improve the conditions for those who will take part in future rotations, he added.
Blum addressed five of the troops' most common concerns at every stop: the predictability and length of their deployments; how effectively the Guard units are being used; the troops' prospects for promotions; their inability to take the military courses and the college classes they need to get those promotions; and their prospects for obtaining leave and passes while on active duty.
Some men and women in this first rotation will have to remain overseas for a full year, Blum said in Kuwait and Iraq at the same time the Army announced that tours of duty for National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf would be extended to one full year "on the ground."
Meanwhile, Blum added, Guard officials are striving to schedule future yearlong rotations far enough in advance so that troops would know when their tours of duty would begin and how long they would be deployed overseas.
The troops would be eligible for 30 days of leave during that year and they would be given two or three weeks for demobilization at their home stations, Blum said.
The general added that efforts also are being made to shorten what can be a lengthy mobilization process, especially for Army Guard soldiers, so that troops can spend as much time as possible at their duty stations.
"Future Guard members and reservists may thank you for bearing the pain that they're not going to have to bear," Blum said.
He also said he would tell state adjutants general in mid-September that it is only fair to promote people who have accumulated enough time in grade, even if deployments prevented them from attending the required schools.
"We are committed to not penalizing people for being patriots and for answering their country's call," said Blum. Promoting people and then giving them time to attend their schools or complete their educations after their deployments is the right thing to do, he observed.
"Any policy that disadvantages you while you are deployed will be changed or rescinded."
The National Guard Bureau chief said every effort would be made to send home Guard units that are no longer needed as early as possible "so we can get you ready for the next time, if necessary."
(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)