Guard Empowerment: A Seat At The Table, And Much More

By Senator Patrick Leahy

This month Congress passed the bipartisan Leahy-Graham National Guard Empowerment Act.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and I authored these reforms to change the way the Department of Defense operates, for decades and even generations to come, by giving the National Guard a real voice in national security decisions.

We Vermonters know how important our National Guard is.  Hurricane Irene showed anew how Vermonters come together in times of tragedy and also how we can always count on our Vermont Guard.  Last year the Vermont National Guard deployed more than 1500 soldiers to Afghanistan, and before that the Vermont Guard deployed to Iraq during one of that war’s bloodiest periods.  Our Vermont Air Guard flew more than 100 days of consecutive missions after the September 11th attacks to keep the skies safe from further attack.  National Guard and Reserve units at times supplied more than 50 percent of the forces the United States had on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan during these wars.

Now the Iraq War has formally ended.  The Afghanistan drawdown continues.  The Cold War is over.  As the Department of Defense reduces our heightened force levels, our country can maintain active duty forces at a size ready to deploy for a wide variety of smaller missions.  At the same time, we can strengthen our economic security by shifting large portions of our active forces into the Guard and Reserve to respond to natural disasters here at home and to bolster our active forces if necessary when our vital interests are threatened.  The Leahy-Graham National Guard Empowerment Act will lay the groundwork for those changes in the years to come.

Our Guard reforms, which were enacted as an amendment to this year’s defense bill, will give the Guard a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a real voice in Pentagon decision making.  Our bill clears away cobwebs that have trapped the Guard – a superb 21st Century military organization – in a 20th Century Pentagon bureaucracy.  Not only do the nearly half million men and women of the Guard need and deserve this voice, but our country desperately needs to hear from the National Guard as a fresh perspective on military matters.

Increasing the profile of the National Guard in the Pentagon will also have the added benefit of changing the way our country considers going to war in the future.  I opposed the War in Iraq from the start and oppose the expanded nation-building mission in Afghanistan.  While these wars will end up costing perhaps several trillion dollars, they have also extracted a greater and greater human cost that is paid by fewer and fewer Americans.  The National Guard answered the call in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those wars could not have been carried out without them.  Keeping that valuable expertise in the Guard will broaden the number of Americans who would actually deploy to fight in future conflicts.  The more Americans affected by these decisions, the more carefully will our leaders weigh the benefits and risks of going to war.   

The National Guard as a significant part of our military is what the Framers intended.  They conceived of a small Army bolstered by much larger part-time state militias that could augment the Army when the Congress declared war.  The vision of the Framers survived until the Cold War period, when the permanent threat of Soviet invasion demanded that our country keep our Army large and permanently ready to deploy on a moment’s notice.

Our National Guard is the component of our military that most represents towns and cities across America.  The men and women of the Guard do not live in self-contained active duty bases but in your neighborhood and mine.  When they hurt, we hurt; when they feel the stress of war, so do we.  Greater reliance on the Guard means politicians will think twice about the impact of war on the people they represent before jumping headfirst into new conflicts.  The Leahy-Graham National Guard Empowerment Act will help to make sure that happens.

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[Patrick Leahy is Vermont’s senior U.S. senator and co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus.]

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