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National Guard Bureau Senior Leadership Conference

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, National Harbor, Maryland, Thursday, November 19, 2009

     Thank you, General McKinley. It’s certainly a pleasure to be here with all of you today. And general, even though you’re off stage I will say even though it has been a year since you earned your fourth star, it is still great to see it on your shoulders.
     As many of you know, to live and work in the District of Columbia is to be surrounded by politicians and submerged in politics. Will Rogers once said, “Politics is the best show in town [America]. I love animals and I love politicians and I love to watch both of ’em play either back home in their native state or after they have been captured and sent [to] the zoo or Washington.” I would prefer to watch from my native state.
     I have been honored to speak to the Guard community and leadership a number of times as secretary of defense. Over that period we’ve seen two important firsts for the National Guard team. I have already mentioned one: the elevation of the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to four-star rank. In addition, Lieutenant General Steven Blum was appointed as the deputy commander of United States Northern Command. We are focused on creating a pathway for a Guard officer to take command of NORTHCOM.
     It is recognition long overdue. America’s citizen warriors – more than 450,000 in all – are part of a tradition that began long before the Declaration of Independence. Their service and character follow from the first minutemen and soldiers, like Henry Knox, who went from being a Boston bookseller to father of American artillery – and the first Secretary of War. That tradition of service carries through to battlefields far from home, where the Guard has transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of America’s operational army.
     In light of this heritage and today’s strategic realities, I’d like to address three main areas this morning:
     • First, what our National Guard has accomplished over the past year here at home and around the world;
     • Second, the things we are doing to better care for our Guard and their families; and
     • Third, how do we, as leaders, better enable these patriots to successfully contribute to America’s defense at home and abroad.
     This past decade the men and women of the Guard have been “Always Ready, Always There.” Since 9/11, some 300,000 – almost 70 percent of Guardsmen – have served in anti-terrorist operations around the world. As was recently announced, the Second Brigade Combat Team of the Iowa National Guard will deploy to Afghanistan next year. In all, nearly 65,000 Guardsmen are deployed in support of overseas operations. Further, the Guard’s State Partnership Program boasts more than 60 bilateral partnerships between states and foreign countries, creating an enduring presence and fostering security cooperation.
     Domestically, the National Guard was indispensable to the smooth and secure transition between presidential administrations and made a life-and-death difference during a number of natural disasters and emergencies.
     More than 10,000 National Guard troops from 14 states and the District of Columbia under the command of General Bolden provided security and logistical support for the swearing-in of President Obama.
     The following month, when ice storms knocked out power to more than half a million homes, more than 4,000 Kentucky National Guard troops mobilized and went door-to-door to provide assistance, delivering more than a million meals and two million bottles of water.
When March floods swamped North Dakota, nearly 3,100 National Guard soldiers and airmen from that state and neighboring Minnesota monitored and repaired levees, operated sand-bag centers, and provided security to residents affected by the floods.
     In September, after a tsunami struck American Samoa, the Hawaiian National Guard launched search and rescue and medical missions within 24 hours to support relief efforts. Guard C-17s hauled almost 700,000 pounds of supplies and equipment.
In Puerto Rico, in response to a devastating refinery fire last month, over 300 firefighters from the Puerto Rico National Guard battled and extinguished the flames.
     And, every day since September 11, thousands of Air National Guardsmen support NOBLE EAGLE missions protecting America’s critical infrastructure and governance sites.
As we’ve seen, for several years, the Guard has been busy with both overseas deployments and homeland security missions – a pace of operations that adds stress to the force and their equipment. It is our obligation as leaders to make sure that Guardsmen and their families are taken care of, properly equipped, and set up for success, and I’d like to address a few of those issues now.
     Something that is of interest to everyone in uniform and their families is the question of dwell time. Our active-duty force is working to get dwell-time ratios back up to two years at home and one year deployed. In addition, we have expanded the active Army’s end strength by 65,000 since I became Secretary of Defense, and I ordered a temporary increase of another 22,000 soldiers earlier this year. This growth allows the active Army to rely less on the Reserve Component, thus reducing some of the demand – and the stress – on the National Guard. I know that predictability is extremely important to the members of the Reserve Component, who balance and coordinate the timing of their service with full-time jobs. The Air National Guard has used long-range scheduling for predictability and individual volunteerism for flexibility to reach a nearly 1 to 5 ratio in terms of dwell, with the Army National Guard close behind, approaching 1 to 4.
      As I have said on a number of occasions, a top priority of mine is taking care of our men and women in uniform and their families – including our citizen-soldiers. Last month, I visited with some of the service’s foremost experts on PTSD and mental health care. We know that parents, spouses, children, and caregivers are under compounded states of stress. During deployment, they run single-parent households, all worrying about the safety of their loved ones overseas – a situation made more difficult by constant updates on the television and the internet about attacks and losses. Military members who are irrevocably changed by what they have endured during their combat tour find themselves quickly reintegrated with families that have also evolved and changed during the time apart. For Guardsmen, there is the added challenge that they are scattered across the state or country, lacking access to the full support of military neighbors and a full service military installation.
     That is why efforts such as the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program are so important. This program provides information, services, referrals, and active outreach to soldiers, spouses, employers, and youth through every mobilization stage. From its inception in March of 2008 through May 2009, the program has hosted nearly 100,000 soldiers and a 100,000 family members. This active outreach is key because many troops and their families are unaware of how many resources are at their disposal.
     During these difficult economic times, we must also do everything we can to safeguard the job security of the Guardsmen who deploy. Toward that end, the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program has attracted more than 4,700 volunteers supported by staff throughout the United States and its territories. Employer-documented support over the past few years has grown from 20,000 participants to over 50,000. This provides peace of mind that an individual who is called to duty by their country will have that job upon returning home.
     You’ve made great strides in all of these areas to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for the force, but don’t let up. Our current engagements will keep forces on foreign soil at some level for years to come.
     In addition to caring for Guardsmen and their families, we also need to make sure that the National Guard has the right policies and institutional support – especially relating to funding, equipment, training, and mobilization. With a four-star at the table, the Guard now has more bureaucratic weight to throw around when it comes to the Pentagon’s budgetary process, which as you know is not always the most edifying spectacle. In recent years this department’s leadership has pushed to provide the men and women of the National Guard with access to the best equipment possible. As you know better than anyone, what used to be the norm was a hand-me-down process of passing older equipment from the active force to the National Guard.
     Everyone in uniform, regardless of component, should have the finest equipment possible, especially when called to deploy overseas. To this end, over the last three years the Department has committed nearly $16 billion total – army and air – for National Guard procurement. And over the period leading to FY13, my hope and plan is to spend a total of about $40 billion between FY7 and FY13 in terms of providing top-line equipment for the Guard. The on hand rate for the Guard – which averages 70 percent historically – has improved from just under 40 percent in 2006 to nearly 80 percent by the end of this fiscal year. And our objective is to reach roughly 90 percent by 2015.
     A few words on the Punaro Commission, whose recommendations continue to be a high priority for the department. The staff is working the 53 commission recommendations that I approved in my November 2008 memorandum. While much still needs to be accomplished, there have been several high points. This includes establishment of the Yellow Ribbon program and significant progress on the oversight of equipment readiness and transparency of Reserve Component procurement funding.
     Finally, I’d like to address what I know is a top-of-the-mind issue for many of you – contiguous mobilization. Earlier this month, at the request of General McKinley and the state adjutants general, I granted the Secretary of the Army the authority to allow for contiguous training in certain cases. I really wrestled with this, worried that our soldiers would see it as breaking faith with my decision in January 2007 to limit mobilization to 12 months. But I was persuaded that contiguous training may lead to improved combat preparation for our RC service members. Just as important, I was told that, by grouping training together immediately before federal mobilization, reservists, their families, and their employers may realize more stability and predictability within the deployment cycle.

[APPLAUSE]

I appreciate that, because that truly was a difficult decision for me. And I want to emphasize that I do remain committed to our 12-month mobilization policy. Further, this exception to policy is limited to one year until we have hard data on its impact and effectiveness. Contiguous training alone will not completely solve the core issues relating to pre- and post-mobilization training. During the next six months or so we will be gathering information to support an analysis that we hope will provide a clear way ahead. I am thankful to the leaders who brought this issue to my attention, and I am pleased that the process we followed was deliberate, with well-considered solutions proposed and fully vetted.
     In closing, please convey to your Guardsmen my thanks for their significant contributions to our national security. Their selfless and rapid response to every contingency and mission is a great testimony to their patriotic service. Further, with the policy changes and continued commitment to modernization, we have guaranteed their ability to contribute to our nation’s security for many years to come.
     The service Guardsmen render to the nation and the cause of freedom around the world represents the best America has to offer. When fate sows destruction on our own soil or the nation sounds the call to arms, you, like your predecessors, leave your homes to aid those in need and secure the freedom we all hold so dear. For your service and your dedication, I salute you. Thank you.

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