Well General, it’s a pleasure to be with you all here today. It’s a pleasure to be anywhere other than Washington D.C. A place where those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.; where people say I’ll double-cross that bridge when I get there; only place in the world where you can see a prominent person walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.
General Umbarger, thank you very much for that introduction and for your service in the Indiana National Guard. Indiana has a special place in my heart. I was only there for a year to get a master’s degree but I met my wife of 42 years there, my daughter graduated from there, and I was recruited by CIA there. I remember visiting the CIA recruiter on campus on a lark – I was hoping for a free trip to Washington. Who would guess that now – more than four decades later – I would covet a day like today because I would have the opportunity to get out of Washington.
As you know, D.C. is all taken with politics this time of year. President Truman once noted, “In election years, we behave somewhat as primitive peoples do at the time of the full moon.” Then there was Winston Churchill, who once said, as for American politics, “I could never run for President of the United States. All that handshaking of people I didn’t give a damn about would kill me.”
Well, it’s great to be here at the 130th conference of the National Guard Association. I spoke to a number of you at the Guard’s senior leadership meeting about a year-and-a-half ago. At that time, General Gene Renuart, then my senior military advisor, had just been nominated to lead U.S. Northern Command. I was pleased to help send another fine leader to Colorado Springs last July, when I recommended Lieutenant General Steve Blum – whom you know so well – to serve as the Deputy Commander of Northern Command. During Steve’s 37 years of military service, he has been a tireless advocate for America’s guardsmen and he has helped transform our often neglected strategic reserve into a fully operational force. Beyond recognition of a fine and deserving officer, I had a broader purpose in General Blum’s nomination: to place a senior Guard officer in a combatant command leadership role and thus position him potentially to succeed to command – a matter, of course, for my successor to decide.
Another historic nomination, just mentioned – that of Lieutenant General Craig McKinley – is worth noting. If approved by the Senate, General McKinley will become the new chief of the National Guard Bureau and will be awarded a fourth star – a first for a Guard officer. General McKinley has earned this place in history. And I trust he will continue to lead the Guard to new heights.
These two appointments reflect and underscore the theme of this gathering, “The National Guard: An Indispensible Force.” In every conflict since the revolution, citizen-soldiers have set aside the plowshare and picked up the sword. General Washington said, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” From fighting fires in California to digging wells in Kandahar, the men and women of the Guard are, “Always Ready, Always There.”
Today the Guard is engaged in more than 40 countries around the world, in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sinai, the Horn of Africa, and Guantanamo Bay. Since September 11th, 2001, more than 660,000 have been mobilized – the largest since World War Two and the first extended mobilization of both the Guard and the Reserve since the establishment of the all-volunteer force.
At the Pentagon, we recently celebrated the dedication of the new 9/11 Memorial. There were commemorations in Shanksville and in New York as well. Seven years ago, members of the New York National Guard were among the first to respond when the World Trade Center collapsed. Today many of them are serving in Afghanistan – their unit has not been deployed in such numbers and for such extended time in over 60 years.
Last week, I visited Baghdad; Kabul; Bagram; and a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Jalalabad. I had several opportunities during that trip to meet with junior officers, Guard members among them, to hear their candid feedback on everything from living quarters to their rations, to the strategic way ahead. It was also a great chance to look them in the eye, shake their hand, and say “thank you.”
The men and women of the Guard are making a real contribution to the war on terrorism. As you know, we recently celebrated the handover of Anbar province to Iraq. Backing that effort were hundreds of guardsmen such as Rhode Island’s 169th Military Police Company.
Today we have the highest percentage of combat veterans serving in the Guard than at any time since the period immediately following World War Two. Behind winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, my number one priority is caring for our wounded warriors with the care they have rightly earned and justly deserve. We are working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs on over 400 actions. I share with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Peake, from whom you just heard, a solemn commitment to take care of our nation’s heroes.
In this time of war, our Guard families deserve our support and thanks as well. They are the power behind the power – husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of our troops. In an effort to better support families of the Guard and Reserve, Defense has established a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, as outlined in this year’s defense authorization act. This program is designed to care for our troops and families in the critical time following their demobilization and reintegration into the civilian work place. To that end, we recently opened a center of excellence in the Pentagon, and we are currently testing pilot programs in 15 states.
Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, our Guard members have been equally busy at home. When Hurricane Gustav threatened the coast, for example, more than 16,000 soldiers and airmen from Florida to Texas responded. In one weekend alone, they evacuated more than 17,000 citizens from New Orleans and almost 600 special-needs patients. And earlier this year, when rain flooded the Midwest:
• The Illinois Guard repaired levees and sandbagged;
• The Indiana Guard protected water and sewage facilities;
• The Wisconsin Guard provided aerial damage assessments;
• The Iowa Guard screened water reservoirs for poisons and other toxins;
• And, once again we saw thousands of guardsmen mobilized to take action in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
All told, the Guard stands ready to tackle such missions at home, as well as both its traditional and non-traditional missions abroad. The Department made a commitment several years ago to ensure that the Guard is fully manned, fully trained, and fully equipped. In fiscal year 2009, the Department helped grow the Guard’s budget to just over $30 billion, an increase of over a billion dollars from the previous year. Spending on Guard equipment – critical because of its dual use for overseas and homeland missions – is projected to be at $32 billion over the next four fiscal years. As a result, nearly 80 percent of Army National Guard equipment-on-hand will be fully modernized by the end of fiscal year ‘13. For the first time ever, the Guard will receive the latest equipment provided to the active force – a change that is long overdue.
I’m pleased to note that the Army National Guard exceeded its recruiting goal this fiscal year and is on track to meet its retention goal as well. And less than two weeks ago, the Air National Guard met its end-strength goal for this fiscal year – the first time in five years.
Since taking this post, one of my priorities has been to ease to the extent possible the stress on our Guard and Reserve. To that end, the mobilization policy I outlined in January 2007 set a goal of one year mobilized to five years at home. We’re not quite there yet on dwell time, but nearly three quarters of the mobilizations over the past nine months have been above the one-to-four ratio of mobilized-to-dwell time.
As part of the new policy, as General Umbarger said, I capped mobilization time at 12 months for the reserve components and ended the 24-month lifetime limit for individuals. We’ve shifted from a mobilization policy focused on individuals to one based on units. My aim was to minimize the practice of cobbling together personnel from different units to fill out a particular battalion or brigade. I believe those from a community or state who train together should deploy and fight together. Adjusting to this cap hasn’t been easy, to be sure, especially for the Army, given the complex task of planning for and sourcing future rotations. Working closely with the services, we have recently expanded notification time, with a goal of 24 months, so that troops are better able to ensure employer and family affairs are in order before they deploy.
The Commission on the National Guard and Reserve – the Punaro Commission – has been a great asset in the Department’s efforts to modernize the Guard. We have been working across DoD to address their recommendations, which were released this past January. Action is already underway or completed on many of the 95 recommendations.
I would like to end by personally thanking you – and through you – all of the men and women of the National Guard. You may think you are an ordinary citizen – perhaps you are a dentist or a librarian, or a math teacher or a scoutmaster – but your service is extraordinary. Take Major Scott Southworth of the Wisconsin National Guard.
In September 2003, Major Southworth served as the commander of the 32nd Military Police Company which had been deployed to northeast Baghdad. His unit’s mission was to train local Iraqi police officers – and it was a dangerous one. During their tour of duty, a car bomb destroyed one of the police stations where the 32nd operated and killed several Iraqi recruits.
A visit to a local orphanage would forever change the life of Scott Southworth and a young Iraqi boy, abandoned because of his crippling cerebral palsy. After scaling a mountain of legal hurdles, Scott ultimately adopted the young boy and brought him to the United States. And today Scott is working to rescue other Iraqi orphans and find homes for them in the United States.
Major Southworth’s altruism truly rises above the call of duty. Such commitment and kindness is replicated every day by countless members of the Guard – extraordinary citizen-soldiers like you. You have the nation’s enduring gratitude and admiration.
But, in truth, no words of mine can express that gratitude like the smiles on faces and tears in the eyes of a devastated American family seeing the Guard coming to the rescue. At home, you bring life to the beleaguered; abroad you bring justice to our adversaries. For all that you do, I salute you.