The Vermont National Guard has a new leader. Brig. Gen. Steven Cray of Essex Junction has been elected as the next adjutant general to lead the Vermont Army and Air National Guard.
Lawmakers decided Thursday General Cray was the candidate best suited to lead the Guard during difficult financial times ahead.
A joint session of the Vermont House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for General Cray, who has spent his entire 30-year career with the Vermont Air Guard.
"I consider the Vermont National Guard an extension of my family," Cray said shortly after the vote. "I literally grew up in this unit, so I have a sincere desire to continue to see it succeed."
Cray defeated three other candidates: Col. Michael Bullock, Col. Darryl Ducharme and South Burlington attorney and F-35 fighter jet critic James Marc Leas. Adjutant General Thomas Drew didn’t seek re-election.
Until now Cray has been a part-time Guard member, balancing his service with his job as a commercial pilot for American Airlines. In 2001, Cray commanded the unit that flew cover over New York City in the weeks following the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Vermont and South Carolina are the only two states that elect their adjutant generals, so Cray spent much of the past four months campaigning for Vermont’s top military post and it paid off.
"It was awkward at the beginning, but it’s been a great experience for me because I would probably have never had the opportunity to travel literally around the four corners of this state."
Cray’s excitement, however, has been dampened by gridlock in Washington. He’ll take the helm as the Pentagon is warning that the "vast majority" of civilian defense employees could face furloughs if the sequester with its across-the-board spending cuts take effect next week.
Cray says the Guard has already notified some members about potential cutbacks.
"If sequestration is enacted there will be a big impact specifically on civilians and that translates into some of our military technicians who are civilians as well as military members," Cray said.
In the race for adjutant general, lawmakers were also looking for someone who would respond to the Air Force’s decision whether to base F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. Cray says the program is critically important to the future of the Guard, which doesn’t have a menu of other missions to choose from.
Opponents who say the jets will render hundreds of homes unsuitable for residential use disagree. South Burlington attorney James Marc Leas, who received just four votes, says the state is not protecting the local economy by advocating for the F-35s.
"We’re not looking for them to lose jobs, we just want them to have jobs that won’t put people in the surrounding communities at risk," Leas said.
General Cray will be sworn in at Camp Johnson in Colchester next Friday – the same day sequestration cuts are expected to go into effect.