By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill, National Guard Bureau
/ Published August 09, 2010
ST. LOUIS -- The National Guard likely will continue to play a significant role in overseas contingency operations for the foreseeable future, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said here Aug. 8.
"Just like we have in Kosovo for 14 years and the Sinai (and) the Horn of Africa, I think the National Guard will be asked to stay longer ... and give (our) civilian-acquired skills to ... emerging government," Gen. Craig McKinley told about 1,800 Guard members attending the 39th annual conference of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.
The Guard already is making a significant military-to-civilian contribution through the agribusiness development teams on the ground in Afghanistan, a program born in Missouri, he said
"The things that we bring from our civilian occupations will mean that the National Guard will be in huge demand for years to come," General McKinley said.
During a July visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, General McKinley said he was struck by the contrast between the two countries.
"What I ... felt in Iraq ... is the Iraqis are (on) the verge of taking control of their own destiny and their own country by forming a government and moving out," he said.
This time, as McKinley rode from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the airport, something had changed from previous visits: Security along a route once infamous for violence was provided entirely by the Iraqi military.
"It gave me a sense of hope that ... this country has the potential to turn a corner and to make a stand on its own and to determine its own destination," he said.
In Afghanistan, General McKinley found a hot war, and a surge in which the Army National Guard is playing a key role.
"There's going to be some pretty rough days and months ahead," he said. "Two vastly different theaters, but similar circumstances in which the men and women who make up our National Guard are contributing greatly on the battlefield."
General McKinley's recent trip in theater ended with a visit with wounded warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a visit that underlined the true sacrifices Guardmembers are making.
"We're going to be at this for a very, very long time," he told conferees from an association of more than 85,000 members, which promotes the status, welfare and professionalism of the enlisted personnel of the Army and Air National Guard.
"The only thing that can take this nation down is (loss of) our will to fight and to remain free and to remain strong," he said. "Do not give in to those who would say that the American will to stay free and remain the beacon of hope is waning, to those who say that the era of American independence and potentially our role in the world as the world's superpower is waning.
"Because on those young men and women's shoulders rest our hopes and our future, and I have a great deal confidence in them that we will get it right."
All Guardmembers, from General McKinley to the newest enlistee, stand on the shoulders of predecessors and mentors, the 26th chief of the National Guard Bureau said.
"None of us go this route alone," he said. Each state and territory and the District of Columbia, "for decades, for centuries, have given their young men and women for service to their state and to their nation."
General McKinley said the time he spends with enlisted Soldiers and Airmen is inspiring.
"For anyone who doubts that this nation is committed to remaining strong and being the beacon of hope for the rest of the world, all you have to do is look in the faces of these young men and women," he said.
The National Guard is at a historic peak of excellence, he said.
"With the leadership of the adjutants general, working for the governors, we have the finest, most talented, most capable, most resilient, most battle-tested National Guard, arguably, in the history of the United States of America," he said. "One of the finest, most well-trained, most well-led, most inspired forces that we could ask for."
The general went on to say that when the nation calls out the Guard, it calls out America.
"Much of the reason this nation is so strongly behind its armed forces and what it is doing is because we've called out the Guard, General McKinley said. "We've involved all of our 3,300 communities around our states and territories and the District, and citizens understand what's at stake."
Recognition of servicemembers' sacrifices, regardless of politics, is in stark contrast to the Vietnam era, General McKinley said, and the implementation of the total force concept is one reason why.
"It's a different Guard," he said. "The National Guard had a different role. ... 'One weekend a month. Two weekends in the summer.' How distant and remote those phrases are, but, for many of us, that was our National Guard.
"We had underutilized equipment, equipment that was old, not serviceable," he said. "We weren't able to give to the Soldiers and Airmen the kinds of training that made them full-up. But today ... our voices are heard not only in the Pentagon but in the White House, and that's a significant achievement that we can all be very, very proud of."
A newly formed council of governors has amplified the Guard's voice among elected and appointed civilian leaders.
"What's at stake very simply is the quality of life, the liberty and freedom that we all enjoy, that which many of us have given our finest hours to," General McKinley said.
"Less than one percent of the American population serves in uniform and so when you look at the 460,000 National Guard men and women and see them at the gas station, you see them at the shopping mall, you have to say that this conflict, ... the struggle against radical extremism, is going to be fought and won on the backs of young men and women who are firmly supported by the citizens of their communities.
"We can't forget that the National Guard, along with our active component, along with the civilians and contractors on the field - [is] making the difference. ... Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are recognized ... because they are fighting for a cause that's bigger than themselves, and they are answering to the civilian commanders."