National Guard serves bravely at home, abroad

Six hundred ninety-three: That’s how many brave, selfless National Guardsmen and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 to ensure others a chance to enjoy freedom. Memorial Day is once again upon us, and it is important to reflect upon and honor those who have served in defense of our nation. 

Memorial Day grew from a Civil War tradition of women’s groups gathering each year to decorate the graves of those whose lives were lost. Believe it or not, just two decades after that bloody conflict, some wondered why the holiday was necessary. One of its veterans, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — later a Supreme Court justice — argued remembrance was not only relevant, but a duty to the fallen. “It is for us to bear the report to those who come after us,” Holmes stated. 

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In the last decade alone, the National Guard has supported more than 675,000 mobilizations in support of domestic and overseas missions. Equally impressive are our reenlistment rates since 9/11. The 106,200 airmen and women of our Air National Guard boast the highest retention rates of any active duty or reserve force. Further, more than 80 percent of our 358,200 Army Guard members joined the National Guard after 9/11, knowing full well they would be put in harm’s way. More than 50 percent are now seasoned combat veterans. This decade has been the first real test of the all-volunteer force, and it has worked in spectacular fashion. 

Odds are you know a guardsman or woman. They are your neighbors, co-workers, friends or relatives. There are more than 460,000 National Guard members in more than 3,000 communities across all 50 states, three territories — Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — and the District of Columbia. In nearly every zip code, these citizen soldiers and airmen are the connective tissue that links Main Street America to our military. They are vital to ensuring public support for all of our brave men and women in uniform. 

Since the 9/11 attacks, our National Guard soldiers and airmen have served on the frontlines at home and abroad. In 2011 alone our nation encountered 14 natural disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage each. The National Guard provided critical life-saving, property protection and recovery support for wildfires in the Southwest, a blizzard in Chicago, floods along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and tornadoes. They also helped protect our borders from drug traffic and ensure the sovereignty of our nation’s airspace. For more than 375 years the National Guard has protected our communities and the people and property in them. 

This generation of National Guardsmen, like past generations, is serving in combat zones. Over the last decade the National Guard has faced the enemy in Iraqi deserts and Afghani mountains. Since 1636, when colonial citizens put down their ploughs and picked up their muskets, America’s National Guard has been there. They have fought and died in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and more. 

Today, the National Guard provides roughly 40 percent of America’s total military force for only 7 to 8 percent of the DOD budget. Just as important, in these financially constrained times, nearly 85 percent of the National Guard serves part time. In short, when citizen soldiers and airmen are not deployed, their civilian employers — not the DOD — absorb the bulk of their costs. The National Guard is security America can afford.

Focusing on the National Guard’s future could be the best way to honor all of our fallen. As America’s strategic hedge for unforeseen world events, it’s important the National Guard remains an operational force. Investing in the National Guard allows us to preserve our most experienced cadre of battle-tested soldiers and airmen. Further, the National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP), approaching its 20th year, is a cornerstone of the new defense strategy. Partnered with more than 60 foreign nations, we have forged enduring alliances by strengthening our partner countries’ capacity and competence. National Guard partner nations have reduced the demand for U.S. forces — 25 partner nations contributed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, while 31,000 partner-nation personnel support U.N. peacekeeping operations. Most telling, more than 85 countries — one-third of the world — have requested to partner with the National Guard as part of the SPP. 

This Memorial Day, as you reflect on the sacrifices made by National Guard members at home and abroad for nearly four centuries, also consider the family members of our servicemen and women. They, too, have made immeasurable sacrifices and contributions. Remembrance is our duty. We owe it to the fallen members of the National Guard, Army and Air, who paid the ultimate price. 

McKinley is chief of the National Guard Bureau.


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