ARLINGTON, Va. - As a result of a high operational tempo and continuous overseas deployments, all current members of the Air National Guard's senior leadership have served overseas and have combat experience-the first time that has occurred in the Air Guard's more than 60-year history.
The Air National Guard director, deputy director, readiness center commander, readiness center vice commander and command chief master sergeant all have combat experience, according to Dave Anderson, director of the Air National Guard History Office. "That's pretty remarkable, in my opinion," he said.
While it may be a noteworthy historical milestone, that experience also translates over to a greater understanding of the challenges faced by Airmen who deploy.
"I think it's important that our senior leadership have experienced combat so that we can relate better to our Airmen who have been deployed continuously," said Air Force Brig. Gen. James C. Witham, deputy director of the Air National Guard, who flew combat missions in Iraq during the initial days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"As we make decisions-both in resourcing and how to organize, train and equip our Airmen to take on these missions-by having participated in [combat] ourselves we better understand what the needs and requirements are as we provide the resources and policy for our Airmen to be able to train so they can then deploy," Witham said.
The director of the Air National Guard wholeheartedly agrees.
"If you didn't have that combat experience I don't know how well you'd be able to relate to others," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III. "Time away from home, reintegration back into families and how you train and prepare for inspections… you share all that in common and it's a cup that we all drink from when it comes to deployments and how we do things in a combat situation."
Clarke, who served as an expeditionary wing commander in Iraq in 2003 as well as multiple deployments enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq in the late 1990s, believes combat deployment experience translates to being a better leader.
"That one experience probably shaped me more than anything else," Clarke said. It meant keeping a large group focused on the mission and motivated, he stated.
"It all came together with people with a common goal and a common focus," said Clarke. "Part of your job is making sure everybody understands what the task is, how they're going to accomplish it and what the end states should be and to be prepared for all the things that aren't going to go your way."
Clarke's own combat experiences are representative of the thousands of other Airmen throughout the Air Guard who have deployed. Their deployment experiences have collectively made the Air Guard a stronger force, he said.
"I think our Airmen are better trained now," he said. "They are better able to respond on a mission because they better understand the importance of it. Our Airmen who have participated in combat over the last decade-plus are that much more attuned to be able to respond in crisis and not only do they make better decisions, but it becomes part of what they do day in and day out."
While the deployments have increased since 2001, the Airmen of the Air Guard have been a dedicated element of overseas missions long before that.
"We've been doing things since the Korean War, but, I think since 1991 it's really escalated," said Anderson, the Air Guard historian. "We've quadrupled or tripled from what it used to be. Before, you'd have a couple of units [that deployed], now I don't think you can find a unit in the Air Guard that can say they've never deployed or participated in a combat operation."
Part of what set the stage for increased deployments after 1991 came from the Total Force policy, according to Anderson.
"The beginning of that is the Total Force policy of the 1970s where they said that the Guard, reserve and active components need to be merged together and they need to have the same equipment, the same training and they have to be deploying and operating cohesively," he said, adding that that has largely happened.
"It's taken awhile to really get there, and we're there now," Anderson said. "It's a seamless thing."
Clarke said he saw that aspect especially during his time as wing commander in Iraq.
"I honestly couldn't tell the difference between who was who because we didn't necessarily wear patches that identified us with any particular squadron or component of the Air Force," Clarke said. "We were just Airmen out there doing the mission."
That experience level has also translated over to the Air Guard's domestic or state mission as well.
"There are a lot of common things that you do overseas that you do at home when it comes to operating in a stressed environment," Clarke said. Whether it is a huge mudslide, tornado, earthquake or a bombing scenario, the Air National Guard has the capability to transpose those same combat skills to benefit the homeland, he added.
And shared combat experience allows for a greater tie between leaders of the Air Guard and the Airmen they lead.
"We can do any mission we are resourced for and trained to do," Clarke said. "The key part is the Airmen themselves. If they're motivated and well trained and have good leadership, you can do just about anything."