Thank you, General Blum.
I appreciate the opportunity to meet with you today to describe briefly some of the ways we are trying to address the challenges and stresses faced by Guard members and their families.
I think America’s “citizen soldiers” are unique in the history of armies, not just because of their patriotism, dedication and skill, but also because they are American citizens first and foremost. And, thus, they are not overly impressed with rank and they are unafraid to ask questions or offer advice or to criticize.
This dates back to the Revolutionary War. One of my favorite stories from that war is about the time General Washington was making his rounds and spotted a certain Private John Brantley drinking wine. Brantley invited Washington to tip the jug with him but the General retorted, “My boy, you have no time for drinking wine.” Brantley, in turn, and probably a little drunk, responded, “Well then, damn your proud soul for being above drinking with your soldiers.” Washington turned back, and said, “Come, I will drink with you.” After the jug was passed and Washington re-mounted his horse to ride off, Brantley yelled after him, “Now I’ll be damned if I won’t spend the last drop of my heart’s blood for you.”
Well, I suppose our citizen soldiers are a little more disciplined than that now. But, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, when I share a meal with our troops, they are unafraid to say what they think and to criticize. And, I hope we never change that. Because it means American democracy is planted firmly in the spirit and hearts of our citizen soldiers.
On my last visit to Iraq, I spoke with a unit from the Minnesota National Guard – a unit that recently had its tour of duty extended. Despite the difficult circumstances they were in, I was struck by their positive attitude. They were proud of what they had accomplished in a region that had once been one of Iraq’s most dangerous. I was thankful to be able to tell them in person how much I appreciated everything they are doing for our country.
I would also like to acknowledge the role played by the families of Guard members – the thousands of husbands and wives, and sons and daughters, who are giving for our country as well. While their loved ones are away serving at some distant post, Guard families remain at home, dealing with day-to-day issues. They mow the lawn, shovel the snow and pay the bills; they make sure the kids get to soccer practice. And they perform the thousands of other tasks that keep their family going in the absence of their loved ones. Their quiet but noble efforts deserve our attention and gratitude.
The support of these family members – as well as their employers and communities – has been crucial to keeping our best citizen soldiers in the Guard. In fiscal year 2006, the Army Guard exceeded its retention mission by 18 percent. Even with the strain of extended deployments, and homeland security and border missions, the Army Guard was able to meet its annual goal four months early.
The willingness of patriotic young Americans to sign up for the Guard has been equally impressive, given the high likelihood of dangerous duty overseas. In the last fiscal year, the Army Guard achieved 99 percent of its recruiting goal, and actually signed up 19,000 more soldiers than in fiscal year 2005.
Due in large part to what has arguably been the most cost-effective recruiting effort in the military, the Army Guard has seen a net increase of some 14,000 soldiers over the past year.
This strong showing is a tribute to the men and women who choose to join and stay in the Guard, as well as the efforts of each of you here today. And I commend you for it.
Since coming back to Washington after nearly 14 years, I’ve been struck by the many changes in the way our government and military are arranged and operated. And one of the most dramatic shifts has been in the role and capabilities of the National Guard.
For much of the last century, the Guard was largely considered a strategic reserve, standing by in case of a mass mobilization. It was not a priority for funding and equipment, even though its members had served in every conflict from the Revolutionary War onwards.
Since September 11, we’ve seen a remarkable transformation of the Guard – from a strategic reserve to a fully operational reserve that is an integral, indeed an indispensable, part of America’s pool of forces used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the broader Global War on Terror. The Department is committed to providing adequate resources so it remains a truly operational force.
Though the men and women of the Guard have responded to these challenges with real spirit and resilience, the high tempo of operations and frequency of deployments in recent years has created stress on the force.
Even before I came to this job, I had two concerns about the state of the U.S. military. One was that the Army and the Marine Corps were not big enough to accommodate the multiple missions that they had been given over the past dozen years or so. The second was the use and condition of the National Guard.
Since becoming Secretary, I’ve tried to address both of those issues in decisions that I’ve either made or recommended to the President.
As you know, we will be increasing the permanent end strength of the Army and Marine Corps by some 92,000 over the next five years. One of the effects of this increase, over time, should be that with a larger pool of ground forces available, it will be less necessary to call on Guard formations as often for overseas deployments.
The second major shift has been a change in the way we mobilize and use troops and units from America’s Guard and Reserves.
The goal is to distribute more fairly, and more effectively, the burdens of war among our active and reserve components, while providing a more predictable schedule of mobilizations and deployments for troops, their families, and their civilian employers. Up until now, the deployment of a guardsman or reservist for one year in Iraq or Afghanistan – the standard tour length for the Army – would usually entail up to 18 months of active duty, including time for pre-deployment training and post-deployment recovery.
All reserve component personnel, including the Army National Guard, will now be mobilized for a maximum of 12 months at a time, with the goal of five years at home before their next mobilization.
We have also rescinded the policy, established in the months following the September 11th attacks, that set a cumulative limit of 24 months of being involuntarily mobilized over the course of a reservist’s or guardsman’s military career. I am told that one effect of that policy was that the Army was forced to cobble together Guard battalions and brigades with personnel taken from other units, and in many cases, from other states.
It is important that citizen soldiers who live together and train together will also deploy and fight together. This change is part of an overall shift in our mobilization policies away from being focused on individuals and towards improving the cohesiveness and capability of units.
The intent of these changes is to establish a cycle of one year on active duty followed by five years at home. We are not there yet. Because of the demands on our military today, some guardsmen will have to deploy sooner than they had expected or wanted. Others will serve longer than they anticipated or would like. I have ordered that we provide additional compensation for those so affected, and have directed a review of our current waiver policy for men and women who may experience undue hardships. Also, I have directed the services to minimize the use of stop-loss.
Combined with other initiatives to better organize, manage, and take care of the force, these recent changes should mean that in the future our troops should be deployed or mobilized less often, for shorter periods of time, and with more predictability and a better quality of life for themselves and their families.
As you probably know, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves is scheduled to give its interim report on Thursday, with recommendations on the National Guard Empowerment Act introduced by Congress last year. I have been briefed on the progress of the Commission and we will analyze their recommendations as soon as we get them.
I believe the Department will agree with the Commission on many issues. Where possible, I will make changes to Department policy. For those recommendations that require legislation, I will forward a proposal to Congress this year.
Whatever the changes, it is important that we do not undermine the total force concept – where the Army and Air Guard are considered fully integrated parts of their service branches. I do not favor placing the Chief of the National Guard Bureau on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but if his responsibilities are such that they warrant a position of four stars, I will support that change. And that is my inclination.
Before closing, I would like to say a few words on the issue of readiness, a topic I know is of some concern.
The practice of leaving equipment behind in-theater has created unique challenges for Guard units returning from overseas deployments. Unlike active duty units, these Guard formations must always be on call in the case of a domestic emergency or natural disaster. I know General Blum and his team have done some excellent work to better coordinate and share Guard assets across state lines when contingencies do arise, as happened with Hurricane Katrina.
But it is understood that mutual support agreements between states are not the long-term solution to the Guard’s equipment-readiness challenges.
Reconstituting and resetting the Guard and Reserve – in particular the nation’s ground forces – is a top priority for the Department of Defense and we are asking in the fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2008 budgets for some $9 billion to get on top of this.
The goal of this program is a National Guard that will be fully manned, fully trained and fully equipped, and fully capable of taking on a range of traditional and nontraditional missions both at home and abroad. This will ensure the Guard remains “Always Ready, Always There.”
From the beginning of this conflict, we have asked a tremendous amount of our citizen soldiers. They have done everything asked of them and more. I thank them for their service, and I thank you here today for your leadership.
I would be happy to take some questions.