CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, visited Soldiers and Airmen stationed in Kosovo who are part of Multinational Battle Group East, Kosovo Forces 14 deployment in support of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission here, Oct. 24.
McKinley, along with the adjutants general from Maryland and New Mexico, and senior enlisted personnel from NGB and the two states, spent the day touring multiple locations where U.S. personnel are stationed.
At Camp Novo Selo, Kosovo, a forward command post, personnel showed McKinley the operations cell as well as the truly multinational aspect of the operation. The group consists of Moroccan, French, German and U.S. Soldiers working together.
After touring Kosovo with Task Force Aviation in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, McKinley hosted a question and answer session with more than 300 Soldiers stationed at Camp Bondsteel, and he began the meeting by commenting on the professionalism of the Soldiers stationed in Kosovo during the recent unrest that has reshaped the deployment.
"I wanted to come today so you could hear my words of thanks, my words of appreciation and admiration," McKinley said. "My admirations to you all for your discipline and your restraint at that moment in September, no matter whether you were here supporting the force or you were actually at Gate 1, the Soldiers represented by this KFOR mission did a magnificent job."
News of the unrest in northern Kosovo and the professional response of U.S. forces reached the secretary of defense and the U.S. president, said McKinley. He went on to say they were all pleased with the manner in which the Soldiers reacted and voiced their support of KFOR's efforts of de-escalating tensions and threats to the security situation.
Before McKinley opened the floor for questions from service members he said, "I am standing in a room full of people who have put service before self; my congratulations and hat's off to you all."
More than a half dozen Soldiers had concerns they were able to voice to the leadership of the National Guard. Questions consisted of an issue currently being discussed in the highest levels of U.S. politics regarding the retirement system for volunteer Soldiers, financial incentives for particular military occupation skills and delays in paying out enlistment bonuses.
McKinley answered other questions regarding the semantics of combat pay and recognition, and inequalities in subsistence with counterparts serving in other theaters. Two topics were brought up concerning the future of the National Guard. Army Maj. Daniel Caisse asked McKinley about the future of the National Guard within the current budget constraints and right sizing of the economy. Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Jepsen voiced concern over the age of equipment the National Guard is using and whether a plan for fielding newer equipment is being considered.
McKinley answered both questions with tones of praise for the ingenuity of Guard members to use available assets to complete any mission set before them, and the prospect of tough decisions as to where to cut back and where to spend. He said that the strategic development process set by the president will shape those decisions.
"We will size the force to a strategy [the president] thinks he can afford. It should be a strategy, it shouldn't just be an affordability drill here," McKinley said. "When that happens, they're going to pass down things to us in the National Guard that are either going to be utilizing our skills and our affordability, and the fact that we are doing it at less cost … or they'll take a slice across the board, which happens periodically, where everybody pays their fair share. We haven't gotten to that point yet."
He went on to add the additional mission of the Citizen-Soldier citing the numerous natural disasters of this past year that called upon local Guard members to aid their fellow citizens.
McKinley said, "We have another mission also, and that is to take care of our mission at home. The governors expect the National Guard to be available, well trained, well equipped and we go out of those gates of the armory ready to go."
Army Sgt. Timothy Tharp, a member of Task Force Aviation, expressed his thoughts on the visit and words of McKinley and his staff.
"It's an important event, that's for sure. To have someone of his stature and position come speak with us - I appreciate it," Tharp said. "Of course I really appreciate the work Col. [Michael D.] Schwartz does on our behalf.
"He's not a four star but he also fights for us. He has to take his lumps just like us, but he's still spent many sleepless nights working to get us what we need."
Following the questions from the Soldiers, McKinley presented 13 junior enlisted Soldiers with coins for a job well done. The New Mexico Adjutant General, Army Maj. Gen. Kenny C. Montoya, also presented coins to six Soldiers on the recommendation of fellow Soldiers.
Five enlisted service members were also honored with coins from the New Mexico State Command Sergeant Major, Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Adair. New Mexico National Guard members make up the headquarters element of MNBG-E as well as the majority of service members present along with 22 additional states and territories and nine countries.
Soldiers expressed their gratitude to the National Guard Bureau for sending the top leadership to Kosovo to speak face-to-face with the personnel stationed here.
Army Maj. Mary Laumbach, deputy logistics officer, said, "Every soldier in there was honored. The questions asked were answered in a straight forward manner and with confidence. I appreciate the general taking the questions back to Congress."
The year-long deployment for the Soldiers of KFOR14 has been dotted with visits from leadership service-wide. The appreciation shown to each of the visitors for taking the time to travel to the remote region in the Balkans does not go unnoticed by those stationed here.
McKinley, the first four-star general to hold the position of Chief of the National Guard Bureau, reciprocated that sentiment by showing his gratitude to the Soldiers who volunteered for this tour of duty.