Douglas: The Guard and the Joint Chiefs

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(Host) In recent years, the National Guard has played a more prominent role both at home and abroad. Former Vermont Governor and commentator Jim Douglas has some thoughts on recent Congressional action that recognizes their contributions.

(Douglas) While most Americans remain disappointed in the recent performance of our Congress, a bill is headed to the President that is a positive step forward for the National Guard and for governors when dealing with natural disasters. The Defense Authorization Bill includes proposals by Senator Leahy and others, the most visible of which gives the Chief of the National Guard Bureau a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That’s appropriate, as the Guard has played a major role in the recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Vermonters know better than most the commitment the Guard has made and the price it has paid. Service in today’s National Guard is not an occasional training exercise or ceremony.

I had the privilege of traveling to the combat theaters last year with General Craig McKinley, the Chief of the Guard Bureau. Since most of the soldiers and airmen we met were Guardsmen, it makes sense that he should serve alongside the leaders of the active duty services.

Another provision will avoid the confusion we saw after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It wasn’t clear who was in charge. Governors are commanders-in-chief of their national guards, but the relationship between the Defense Department and the states had been strained. Because some in Louisiana didn’t respond as professionally as they should have, the Congress snuck a provision into a defense bill that removed a governor’s authority to activate reservists to assist in an emergency without permission from the Feds. That didn’t go over well with governors. It was an overreaction.

Many in Congress admitted that they didn’t know what they had approved, so the following year the provision was rescinded, and lawmakers insisted that the Pentagon actually talk with governors about their differences. They created a Council of Governors, comprised of five from each party, to meet with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and resolve jurisdictional issues. The Bush administration didn’t make the appointments, but early last year the Obama White House decided to move forward, frankly, after some encouragement from the National Governors Association, which I then chaired. The President asked me to serve as the Republican co-chairman, but I hesitated, since I would be leaving office before the end of the Council’s two-year term. Not a problem, his staff insisted: he wanted me to do it.

It was quite a challenge, but I had great partners in Governor Chris Gregoire of Washington, the Democratic co-chair, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

In less than a year we worked out an agreement whereby governors and the President would appoint a ‘dual-hatted’ commander, someone, generally a national guard officer, who had completed a special DOD training program and would assume both state and Federal roles. I’m pleased that we accomplished this key objective before I left and that the Congress has approved it.

Tropical Storm Irene didn’t require the assistance of the regular Army, but any future event will now have a single military commander reporting to both the governor and President, avoiding the chaos that followed Katrina.

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