NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The National Guard proved its relevance, value and accessibility after the manmade disaster of Sept. 11, 2001, and after the natural disaster named Katrina that hit almost four years later, the Guard's senior officer said today.
"These last eight years have been a testimonial to your service, to your patriotism, to the respect that the nation has for what the National Guard can contribute," Gen. Craig McKinley told the 131st National Guard Association of the United States General Conference meeting here.
Speaking on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the 26th chief of the National Guard Bureau recalled, "I was in the Pentagon. I watched Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld go out … and help people. … A lot of Guardsmen did the same thing."
McKinley said the Air National Guard was flying patrols over the Pentagon within minutes, and other Guardsmen around the country vowed to never let another attack happen on their watch again. "That's what I go to sleep with at night," he said.
McKinley said the National Guard must now rise to a smorgasbord of new challenges he outlined for the more than 4,000 active and retired Guardmembers and their guests attending the NGAUS conference, including military and political leaders from each of the 54 states and territories and the District of Columbia.
And with economic challenges come tighter budgets.
"The budget will be a No. 1 issue," for Department of Defense leaders, McKinley predicted. "We're going to go through a period of time of contracting resources. … We're also going to be involved in an era of persistent conflict. So how do you balance it out? Era of persistent conflict and beginning an era of dwindling resources?
"Every chief and every director … and every adjutant general … has had to play their part in how you balance the risk associated with resourcing and being prepared to do your mission at home and your mission abroad."
McKinley made a pledge on behalf of NGB and its directorates: "We … will do everything we can to balance risk and make sure we get the most that we can for the National Guard that has served so well. We can't let [the Guard] slide back as we did after World War II."
But this, too, will be a challenge. The National Guard has relied on a cascade of equipment that was purchased new for the active components, then passed on to a Guard that was famous for wringing extraordinary life from used equipment.
"In many cases, the cascading equipment that served this great Guard for 60 years following World War II … is no more," McKinley said. "We can build new. We can put good money against maintaining old equipment, or we can wait for the concurrent and proportional status."
McKinley was referring to the emerging concept that the National Guard will receive new equipment concurrently and proportionally with the active components.
"We need to have a strategy for both the Air and the Army National Guard that continues to keep faith with the Soldiers and the Airmen who have stuck with us through eight years of persistent conflict, and who … will stay with us for the next decade if we do our job right," McKinley said.
McKinley stressed the importance of mentors for Soldiers and Airmen, listing his own, many of whom were present, including former chiefs of the National Guard Bureau and directors of both components.
Those leaders were responsible for the birth of some of the National Guard's most successful and enduring programs, such as the State Partnership Program, Counterdrug and Youth ChalleNGe.
"You have to go out and find mentors," McKinley said. "You can't wait for mentors to come to you."
McKinley mentioned the agribusiness development teams currently at work in Afghanistan - a program seemingly destined to emulate the successes of the SPP, Counterdrug and Youth ChalleNGe.
Recently, 355 Arkansas Guardmembers volunteered for an ADT that required 58 members. "It's not about 'Who's gotta go?' " McKinley said. "It's they're fighting to go. ... These agribusiness development teams may be the turning point to bring … Afghanistan around."
The nation and the Guard rose to the challenge of 9/11.
"We can be a better country because of this," McKinley said "We grieve for the families, who lost members because of 9/11, but we are a better nation, and we are a kinder nation, and we've liberated a country from a despotic dictator, and we're trying to help a country turn itself around and come from the 15th century into a new world order.
"The 21st century will be tough for all of us, but the National Guard is resilient. It will take the challenge, it will do its job, it will be there when its nation needs it, and I can't thank you all enough for the jobs you do, for the sacrifices you make and for the commitment you have to your states and to this nation."