RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – During Thanksgiving visits with troops serving in four countries, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel saw how fully National Guard members are integrated in the Joint Force as part of One Army and the Total Air Force.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau led a delegation of National Guard senior leaders to thank troops serving in Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lengyel also met with host nation leaders to discuss partnership development, and his visits helped him identify strengths and opportunities for improvement in how deploying Guard members are supported.
"The National Guard's primary mission is to support the warfight of the Army and the Air Force," Lengyel said. "We secure the homeland, and we build partnerships, but we succeed in those missions because of our foremost mission – being ready to fight America's wars.
"We fight our nation's wars as part of the United States Army and part of the United States Air Force, and our training for the warfight, our ability to deploy and support it, is our number one role, the number one reason why we exist, and why the United States funds us with federal dollars.
"Our second mission is to secure the homeland and protect our communities from whatever disaster might hit, whether it"s manmade terrorism or natural disaster. We fulfill this mission every single day across the 54 states and territories and the District of Columbia.
"Our third mission is to build partnerships, at the local, state, federal and international level. Those partnerships enable both our warfighting and homeland missions and demonstrate our value to America."
Army Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, accompanied Lengyel. "Warfighting capability makes us governor-responsive," Kadavy said, explaining the symbiotic relationship between the Guard"s overseas and domestic missions.
Lengyel's key message to members of all services he encountered during his trip was simple: "Thank you. Thank you for what you do every day for our nation and your state or territory."
He repeatedly emphasized the importance of making sure families and – for Guard members and Reservists – civilian employers understand how much the nation appreciates their sacrifices, too.
"No one makes the kind of significant contributions you are making alone," Lengyel told troops. "We cannot do what we do without our families and friends. And, by supporting your service, your civilian employers are making a direct and significant contribution to our national defense."
Gen. Lengyel wore two hats during his Thanksgiving visits: His position as the chief of the NGB, and also his role as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I don"t think there was a component I didn't see or talk to on this trip. I spoke with Sailors, with Marines, with active duty Army and Air Force, across the spectrum, and saw that we integrate and operate as a Joint Force – really, a Combined Joint Force, since I saw many of our international partners as well.
"Sitting behind your desk in Washington, you really can"t perceive the environments where people live, the actual problems they face, the way they orchestrate and integrate and operate together. It gives you a better opportunity to see a global picture of the entire joint force when you see it firsthand. I highly encourage staying informed and reading news reports and the like, but nothing substitutes for actually going there and seeing it for yourself, talking with the people who have the perspective of the host nation, wherever it may be. It gives you a much clearer picture."
Guard members deployed to Afghanistan are part of the joint force training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces so those forces can provide security and stability for the Afghan people.
"Our forces are completely embedded in the joint force, doing exceptional work – and now National Guard forces are doing things we"ve never done before, such as leading the train, advise and assist mission in Kandahar," Lengyel said.
Like his boss, the chief of the National Guard Bureau"s senior enlisted advisor, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush, also observed in all four countries how completely Guard members are integrated into the joint force. For him, this observation and conversations with his senior enlisted counterparts in theater begged a question: what do we need to do to better prepare noncommissioned officers for joint assignments?
"Right now, for the most part, we wait until you're a sergeant major or a chief master sergeant before we really give you that training," Brush said. "Isn't that a little late? In today's environment, we need our junior Soldiers and Airmen to embrace a joint mindset from the get-go, to understand how they can best contribute to their counterparts in our services, and even in foreign partner forces – and how they can learn from them to enhance and broaden their own skills."
Thirty five years into his career, Lengyel said the Joint Force is performing better than ever. "We really have come a long way in my 35 years," he said.
On Thanksgiving Day, Lengyel was joined by Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander, United States Forces – Afghanistan, to don aprons, head coverings and gloves and serve the traditional dinner to members of all services, civilians, contractors and foreign partners.
"It's an incredible honor to get to do this," Lengyel said. "It's an opportunity to personally thank as many troops as we can for the sacrifices they are making and the work they are doing."
"There is nowhere I would rather have been this Thanksgiving than right here with our troops," Kadavy, the Army Guard director, said.
Lengyel also led town hall meetings with troops in each country he visited.
"The National Guard is part of One Army and the Total Air Force," Lengyel said. "They're happy to do it. Morale is high. They gave me some great questions, including about the mobilization process. I think there's still some innovation we can do to be more efficient, and I'm bringing good ideas from our troops back with me to D.C."
National Guard members in Kuwait are contributing to both Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve.
"Forces deployed into Kuwait can be used for either engagement," Lengyel said. "So you have to have flexibility. While you may think you're deploying to support one operation, you may find yourself being tasked to support the other."
Again, Lengyel was impressed by morale. "The Soldiers and Airmen here are happy and excited to be engaged in the fight, and they want to be a part of all the relevant missions. Nobody's upset about being asked to be flexible and pivot to a different task. They're proud to be doing what they're doing."
Guard members' morale is enhanced by the knowledge they are engaging violent extremists overseas, taking the fight to the enemy and preventing terrorism at home.
The fight is likely to be a long one, Lengyel said, and it will require a whole-of-government approach that draws on all the instruments of national power, including diplomatic, informational and economic tools, but it will definitely include the military instrument for years to come.
"If you look back across history, there's always been some sort of terrorism," he said, "but, with respect to radical ideologies, those are dangerous, and it"s going to be a long time before they go away. To keep people safe, the military is going to be a large part of the solution. These people have weapons, they use weapons against us, and we need the capabilities of our joint force."
At every stop, Lengyel and other senior leaders asked National Guard members about the intensity of operations.
Soldiers and Airmen want real-world missions, he said. They seek predictability, and they want the time to make contributions in their civilian jobs, but they also want to deploy, he said. The only thing they don't want is to go through the readiness cycle and prepare themselves for missions only to be left on the shelf.
"They didn't sign up to stay home," Lengyel said, "and, frankly, no one should expect to serve exclusively in the homeland. The Army and the Air Force tell us what they need, and we deliver."
To Lt. Gen. Kadavy, that attitude is spot-on.
With troop numbers below one million, the Army is at its smallest size, judged by personnel, since World War II. "An Army of 980,000 is going to require every Soldier," Kadavy said. "That means personal readiness is critical. And it means if you're in the Army National Guard you can expect to be called upon to contribute to our nation"s work about every four years."
"It's exactly the same on the Air side," Lengyel said. "The Air Force has been doing this as one force for a long time. Both the Army and the Air Force depend on us to get the mission done. All of my colleagues in the services are absolutely committed to a sustained, predictable role for the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard."
Lengyel was joined in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan by Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Edwards, the adjutant general of the Colorado National Guard, and Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Woods, the state's senior enlisted leader.
Colorado has built an enduring relationship with Jordan over the dozen years since the two were paired in the National Guard State Partnership Program, a 23-year-old initiative launched in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc to assist former Soviet states that has now mushroomed into a thriving program pairing 79 nations with different states – and still growing.
The SPP has helped turn security consumers into security providers. Partner countries have co-deployed to combat zones with troops from their National Guard partner states some 80 times, and the two working together is sometimes even a condition of the deployment for the partner nation.
The SPP also has given the National Guard an opportunity to train, advise and assist our foreign partners; increased interoperability between U.S. and foreign forces; increased trust; provided learning opportunities for Guard members who observe partner techniques for dealing with domestic responses that can be applied back in the homeland; enriched both partners" cultural understanding; increased diversity of thought and inclusion; and triggered deeper non-military cooperation, such as between universities.
The relationships can grow so strong that, in the example of Kosovo, the Balkan nation opened its only consulate in the United States in its partner state – Iowa.
"It's a unique tool in the strategic toolkit in the political / military realm that builds trust and partnership capacity," Lengyel said.
Guard members serving in Jordan are assisting the host nation by training, advising and assisting its armed forces.
Lengyel's final stop was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Guard members are, again, providing training, advice and assistance to host nation forces.
"It's important to share and affirm our commitment as a friend and a partner," Lengyel said, noting that Saudi Arabia – like every country in the region – faces multiple complex challenges, including an ongoing war in Yemen, the impact of the Syrian civil war, efforts by Iran to increase its regional power and instability in Iraq.
"Overall, I"m so proud of all the National Guard forces I've seen – so well-trained, so motivated, so professional, so eager to be a part of the joint force as we defend American interests abroad," Lengyel said.
"The National Guard Bureau exists for only one reason: To ensure the 54 are properly organized, trained and equipped so we are Always Ready, Always There when either a governor or the president calls upon us, whether it's to support civil authorities in the homeland or to support the warfight.
"It's quite clear to me our troops are doing what we are asking of them; I return home even more motivated than before to ensure we are doing all we possibly can to support them."
Other members of Gen. Lengyel's delegation during all or part of his travel included: Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, the chief's foreign policy advisor; Army Maj. Gen. Pat Murphy, in his capacity as the director of the National Guard Bureau's international partnerships; Air Force Maj. Gen. Jon Nichols, adjutant general of the Texas National Guard; Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, command sergeant major of the Army National Guard; and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Weedon, senior enlisted leader of the Texas National Guard.