Our country relies upon the skills and abilities of our National Guard

Another Memorial Day is upon us. Each year, our Nation stops to remember our fallen heroes from the wars of our past and, over the past eight and a half years, from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We have taken this pause since the middle of the 19th century, and I hope we will continue this time honored tradition for as long as we are a Nation.

As part of the strongest and most professional military on the planet, the National Guard has been there for every war - even before we were a Nation.

Since 1636, when colonial citizens put down their ploughs and picked up their muskets to protect their fellow citizens, America’s National Guard has been there. We have never missed the call.

In today’s wars, our Soldiers and Airmen contribute mightily. Indeed, more than 600 men and women have given their lives in these wars. Their families, loved ones and friends grieve these losses and we, as a Nation, grieve with them this Memorial Day, and every day of the year.

We can ill afford to forget our fallen or their sacrifices. Honoring them should not simply be a function of our thoughts, but can and should be manifested through our deeds.

Today, your National Guard is more experienced, more capable and more professional than at any other time in our history. Why? Because our government, through the Army and the Air Force, has invested significant resources in our Guard. These investments were made necessary by the onset and continuation of persistent conflict brought on by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, your National Guard has undergone a historic transformation becoming today what can only be referred to as a National treasure.

Make no mistake; this transformation was not an accident. Rather, it was well planned and executed at a time when there really was no other choice. And, the result is that when the country calls out the National Guard, our Soldiers and Airmen show up well trained and equipped, ready and able to integrate with emergency managers and other first responders in our states, territories and the District of Columbia in times of disaster, and to fight alongside, our Army and Air Force brothers and sisters during times of war.

This is somewhat different from the National Guard many might remember from 10 or more years ago. In those days, resources were not focused in the same way as they are today.

 Now, it’s an entirely different story. Our country relies on, even at times depends on, the proven skills and abilities of our National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, and resources it with that in mind.

This reliance is not only in terms of the wars we fight in distant lands, but here at home as providers for our homeland security and disaster response needs. Whether fires, floods, hurricanes, or even terrorist acts, the National Guard will undoubtedly be there when called into action.  This is all a direct result of America’s investment in our Guard.

As the landscape of tomorrow stretches out before our Nation, I believe we must take to the task of considering what the Guard of the future might look like. As the current wars begin to wind down, what will we do with this National treasure? How can we continue to provide the country a strong return on its investment?

Surely, the country will expect us to be ready, trained and capable, just as we have been for the better part of the last 10 years. But, resources are precious. I know getting at the answers to these questions won’t be taken lightly and I’m looking forward to being part of the process. We owe it to our country to chart a course to the future.

Perhaps, more importantly, focusing on the Guard’s future is the best way to honor all of our fallen today. These brave men and women did more than for their country than pay the ultimate sacrifice. They led the way through the creation of our Nation. They fought and died in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and more. They broke out of the Cold War mindset, led the way through this decade-long transformation, and helped shape this 21st century National Guard, which is unlike any other in our history. What a wonderful legacy. What a tremendous value to America.

As you reflect on this Memorial Day, I ask each of you to remember all who have given their lives serving our great Nation. They are all — each and every one — heroes. And, please remember their families. Wish for them comfort amid their grief.

Gen. McKinley is the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.