Vermont National Guard focuses on ‘staying relevant’

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(Host) Recently, it was announced that the Vermont Air National Guard will be patrolling the skies in the Southeastern United States. That’s a major step in the Vermont guard’s effort to stay relevant in a changing military.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports the first of two parts on Vermont and the military.

(Zind) Adjutant General Martha Rainville says there was stiff competition for the air guard mission. To win it, Vermont Guard officials mounted a campaign to convince top brass that Vermonters were up to the task. Rainville says she did a lot of traveling to make the case to members of Congress and officials with the Air Force and Department of Defense.

(Rainville) “When I was a lieutenant and captain I used to think there was this marvelous plan in place at the Pentagon for everything. And I didn’t understand that a lot of these decisions really do come down to the information the decision makers have at that moment.”

(Zind) It also helped to have Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy on a committee that handles defense appropriations. Leahy says to stay relevant, Guard units have to make constant adjustment to new missions and demands.

(Leahy) “I spent a lot of time over my career in the Senate with the guard. The Guard I knew when I was first in the Senate is almost unrecognizable to the guard that I know today here. And that’s the way it should be. If it doesn’t evolve, it’s useless.”

(Zind) Not all Guard units will be able to keep up with the changing mission. Rainville says winning the new mission is a key to keeping the Vermont Air Guard from becoming obsolete in the near term. But a continued decline in the number of regular army time soldiers, limited funding and constantly improving technology mean the Vermont Air Guard will have to lobby hard to keep equipment and training up to date.

(Rainville) “That’s going to be tough but not impossible. And one of the steps to take to reach that plan is to keep this unit important to the future plans of the Air Force.”

(Zind) The struggle to stay relevant comes, ironically, at a time when the military is more dependent than ever on the Guard. Rainville says since September 11, demand on the Guard has increased in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated. Guard members who once expected to spend one weekend a month on duty are now faced with the prospect of spending months overseas. The number of deployed Vermont Guard members is at an historic high.

(Rainville) “Now a Guard member can plan on being deployed. We can look on the charts and know that in all the ongoing contingency operations that the Guard units will be involved. In the past there may have been some short deployments in the Air Guard and maybe some overseas training that could be conducted for the some of the units in the Army Guard, but certainly one could go through a 20-year career and never be deployed.”

(Zind) Rainville says the likelihood of a long deployment has been a tough adjustment for some guard members and their families.

On the other hand, she says a new crop of younger people has been energized by the prospect. Major John Boyd is recruiting and retention manager for the Vermont Army National Guard. Boyd says more young people now see the military as an option once they graduate from high school. In addition, more guard members are opting to reenlist.

(Boyd) “Before September 11, we were running about 22% attrition, so basically a fifth of the Vermont Army National Guard would turn over every year. Now we’re down to about 16%.”

(Zind) Every year about 500 Vermonters join the Army Guard. Adjutant General Rainville says a strong Guard is important not just to the military, but the communities’ ability to know how wisely the military is using its most valuable resource: its people.

(Rainville) “The guard is the constitutional militia. We are the community-based defense of this nation and we are the direct link with the citizens. Philosophically, I think it’s a good thing that the country can’t go to war without involving the Guard because when you involve the Guard you involve the communities.”

(Zind) Rainville says one challenge the military faces is reassuring guard families that deployments and leaves will happen on a predictable basis.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) On Tuesday, VPR’s Susan Keese reports on the challenges facing the families of Vermont’s reservists.

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