Life After 9/11: Changing Of The National Guard

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(Host) In the last week we’ve seen the Vermont National Guard helping in the response to the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. 

That’s a role we’ve long associated with the guard. 

But the events of September 11th, 2001 transformed the guard into an organization trained to respond to very different circumstances, much further away from home.

As part of our series on how 9/11 has affected us, VPR’s Steve Zind reports on the changing of the National Guard.

(Zind)  The guard had seen overseas deployments before 9/11. They were relatively small groups of Vermonters serving in support roles.  But the events of 10 years ago changed that. 

On 9/11 and the days following, Vermont Air Guard F-16s flew missions over Washington D.C. and New York. 

In the wars that followed, in Afghanistan and Iraq, members of the army guard filled a variety of critical roles, and for some the mission included combat. 

(Rainville)  "You make us all very, very proud. Be proud of yourselves. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other and I look forward to the day that I welcome you back. God bless each one of you and God bless the United States of America."  (applause)

(Zind) In 2005 Vermont’s then Adjutant General Martha Rainville spoke to soldiers in Task Force Saber as they deployed for service in Al Anbar Province in Iraq.  It would be the guard’s deadliest deployment.  Six of the 400 Vermonters serving in Task Force Saber died in the fighting in Iraq.

(Rainville)"This morning I’m announcing the loss of a Green Mountain Boy. Specialist Christopher Merchant.  He is survived by his wife Monica, who lives in Hardwick and by four children, ages 9, 10, 11 and 14…"

(Zind) There was a steady succession of funerals in 2005 and 2006 as fallen Vermont soldiers were honored in very public expressions of grief and support. That changed the way Vermonters viewed the guard. 

The ‘Weekend Warrior’ label no longer fit people who were leaving their jobs and families for a year or more, deploying to war zones – and dying.

Many in this bluest of blue states carefully balanced their disapproval of the wars with their support for men and women from their hometowns who were serving in them.

The shift in how Vermont Guard soldiers were seen by the public was clear to the soldiers themselves.

(Smith) "So many people, every time, whether I’m going to get lunch; I’ve had people buy lunch for me at Moe’s, I walk in, in the uniform,  and the next person in line in front of me they just bought lunch for me and I didn’t even see who they were, they didn’t even say anything. I go into a gas station and even the attendants there say ‘hey, thanks for your service.’  So it feels really good."

(Zind) Staff Sergeant Joshua Smith is a human resource specialist with the guard.  I first met him in Afghanistan last year, where he was helping train the Afghan National Police. We shared a bone rattling humvee ride from Kabul to Bagram Airbase.

(Smith in humvee)  "On our way up there, we’re taking the same road that we’re on now, there were a large number of demonstrators and they were extremely anti-U.S.  They were throwing rocks, they were throwing boulders the size of the helmet that you have.  They were throwing food, they were throwing water bottles…"

(Zind)  Back at home in Jericho the 29 year old Smith is enrolled in officer candidate school and plans to make a career of the guard. 

As for his motivation now that the deployments are over, Smith says he’s found a new sense of purpose in the desire to mentor new guard recruits. 

Vermont Adjutant General Michael Dubie says not only has the public’s perception of the guard members changed, the way the soldiers and airmen see themselves has changed.  

(Dubie) "The guard is a completely different organization than it was when I joined in 1979.  Everyone expects that they will have to go somewhere.  You never have to tell anyone to get a haircut.  Everybody’s in shape.  People want to stay in.  I’m not saying that the people 20 or 30 years ago didn’t feel that way, but now its expected that if you join, you’re going to be asked to go to a far away place and live in austere conditions and do what the military needs you to do.  That was not the attitude 30 years ago when I joined or 20 years ago or I would even say 10 years ago on September 11th." 

(Zind) As an organization the Vermont Guard has been transformed in the past decade.  The budget figures tell the story. In the past 10 years the amount of money the guard receives more than doubled.  Last year it was about $250 million in federal money. 

But Dubie says that represents the high water mark and the numbers are already starting to come down.

(Dubie) "We are preparing for possible significant reductions because of the budget issues."

(Zind) Faced with those cuts Dubie, who’s president of the Adjutants General Association, is making the case in Washington that even as the wars wind down, the guard will continue to be important to the military’s overseas mission. 

He’s arguing that the fact that a typical guard member is older, has a family, civilian work experience and often serves in the community gives them skills that younger active duty soldiers don’t have – especially when it comes to the winning hearts and minds part of an overseas mission.

(Dubie) "I think that we are not only almost identical in capability, but we are even more capable when it comes to that interaction that is essential to what’s required of the military today."

(Zind) Dubie says one legacy of a decade of deployments is the Vermont Guard is better trained and prepared to deal with domestic emergencies.

As he recalls last year’s historic deployment of about 1,500 army guard soldiers to Afghanistan and the calls he received to inform him of fallen or badly wounded soldiers, Dubie finds some relief in the fact that its unlikely there will be any large deployments in the next few years.

(Dubie) "It was a horrible feeling to have the phone ring late at night."

(Zind) The memory of the deployments will recede for most Vermonters. But in all 14 Vermont Guard members died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and for their families the deployments will never be far from their minds. 

There are also the scores of wounded Vermont soldiers who bear the physical and psychological wounds of the wars.

Scott Carruthers of Eden was a Vermont Guard medic in Iraq in 2006-2007.  He was involved in nearly 30 roadside bomb explosions. On his return home, he was given a clean bill of health.   

(Carruthers) "And then when I came home, were we’re all told we’d be better.  And I was falling down my own stairs at my house and running into things."

(Zind) Carruthers was eventually diagnosed with TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury. He and several other Vermont Guard veterans of the Iraq war say they’ve had difficulty getting proper treatment for TBI at the Veteran’s Hospital in White River Junction, a charge the hospital denies. 

What IS certain is that Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, and other affects of deployment are another legacy of the Vermont Guard post 9/11 deployments.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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