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Air Guard General Transformed by Army Desert Training

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT IRWIN, Calif., June 16, 2003 – The thing that generals claim to miss most is getting their hands dirty. That means they no longer do the work that they once did and others in their command now do for them.

Brig. Gen. Gary Wilfong got his hands and his combat boots and his camouflage uniform and his Kevlar helmet and even his hair plenty dirty in the hot, windy and bone dry sand of the Mojave Desert in southern California June 9.

Wilfong is an Air National Guard general from North Carolina, and he spent time that day at the Army's National Training Center, at Fort Irwin, learning how the Army National Guard prepares to do battle.

At 54, he is North Carolina's assistant adjutant general for air and commander of the Tar Heel state's 1,600 Air National Guard members. He is also the pivot man for North Carolina's efforts to transform its state headquarters at Raleigh into a joint, or combined, headquarters to comply with the vision of Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Blum has asked Guard leaders in the 54 states and territories to consolidate their adjutants general departments, Army Guard state area commands and Air Guard state headquarters into joint commands by Oct. 1.

That, Wilfong acknowledged, is what brought him to the dry desert to get a better idea of how the Army Guard does its business. Maj. Gen. William Ingram Jr., North Carolina's adjutant general, is depending on Wilfong, a veteran C- 130 transport pilot and former squadron and wing commander, to learn how the other half lives in this case the Army Guard's 30th Infantry Brigade, a separate mechanized brigade headquartered in Clinton, N.C.

"It made sense to me that the Air Guard could better complement the Army Guard and that the Army Guard could better complement the Air Guard," explained Ingram, who became North Carolina's state military leader in July 2001, less than two months before terrorists attacked the United States.

"We've been going in this direction for a couple of years. I fully support Lt. Gen. Blum's vision of joint state headquarters," added Ingram, who has served with members of other services while commanding troops in Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia.

"I'm educating myself as far as the aspects of the Army Guard that I'm not familiar with or comfortable with, being more concerned with the Air Force side," explained Wilfong about how he is helping North Carolina comply with Blum's request.

He got an earful while visiting the 30th Brigade's tactical operations center that was preparing for a training battle that would begin early June 10.

Brigade staff members explained how they planned to fight that battle against the National Training Center's renowned opposing force. And other North Carolina Air Guard members, in the 118th Air Support Operations Squadron, gave Wilfong a detailed explanation of how they planned to support the Army Guard brigade with air power.

It was, in short, a crash course in Army tactics conducted in an environment that Wilfong is not used to working. His familiar duties involved piloting transport planes for the Air Force and Air Guard. And in civilian life he's a US Airways pilot. All told, he has logged more than 17,000 hours.

Wilfong does not ordinarily do business in a mobile complex of tents and armored command vehicles in a place like the Mojave, where the only air conditioning is the hot desert wind.

An Army tactical operations center on the eve of a battle can be a confusing place. It is 30 or 40 people coming and going in 30 or 40 different directions, all talking at the same time above the static of radios and the whine of power generators.

The 30th's TOC seemed chaotic indeed to a visitor who did not understand how it worked that day as staff people coordinated the next day's battle missions and attended to the needs of two armor battalions, an infantry battalion and several smaller units - 3,800 Guard soldiers in all.

An Air Force command center can also be a busy place during combat operations, Wilfong said. But here's the difference:

"In the Air Force, we're usually back away and not in the middle of the fight," he pointed out. It is the airplanes, after all, which Air Force commanders send in harm's way. "We may be in different facilities that lend themselves to a cooler atmosphere," Wilfong said.

An Army brigade operations center, however, has to be in the thick of things on the battlefield.

It was that different slice of military life that this Air Force general sampled for himself in the Mojave Desert. But this short time will help the North Carolina National Guard take another giant step toward transformation.

(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office in Arlington, Va.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBrig. Gen. Gary Wilfong, commander of the North Carolina Air National Guard, got a first-hand look June 9 at how the North Carolina Army Guard's 30th Infantry Brigade prepares for battle at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA  
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