Vermont State Guard expands its ranks

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(Host) As Vermont’s National Guard troops continue to deploy overseas, a lesser known branch of the state’s military has been beefing up its ranks. Just over three years ago, the Vermont State Guard had 35 members. Today it has 500 volunteers.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Not to be confused with the National Guard, the Vermont State Guard has no federal function. The group takes its orders from the governor and stays in-state.

After World War II, the State Guard was disbanded. It was reformed in 1982. But until September 11, 2001, it had only a handful of members. Nine-eleven and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stirred something in a group of people who are generally too old to qualify for the National Guard or other military service.

(Ray Cota) “They just want to support the troops who are leaving and they see a need to support the state.”

(Zind) Most of the time, Ray Cota is an accountant. But he’s also a Brigadier General in the Vermont State Guard. Cota says most guard members are in their 50s and 60s. Many, like Cota, once served in the military.

The State Guard sees itself in a support role to the National Guard. After September 11, Guard armories around the state were closed, shutting out after school programs and other activities that used the buildings. Now State Guard members are staffing the facilities, and the armories are open again.

The State Guard has been helping with paperwork and even making dog tags for Vermont National Guard troops being deployed overseas. In an emergency, the governor could call on the State Guard to help with or carry out the duties of the National Guard.

There are many differences between the National Guard and the Vermont State Guard. Members of the state group can quit the Guard whenever they like. There’s no pay and they have to buy their own uniforms. State Guard members aren’t required to train. The only requirement is that they attend an annual meeting.

Cota says training is available for people who want it but, many of those who join the State Guard already have skills they’ll need if they’re called up in an emergency.

(Cota) “We look for people who have 20, 30, 40 years of experience, either in civilian life or military life. We’re looking for people with experience in careers.”

(Zind) About 75 percent of State Guard members have served in the National Guard or full time military. Walter Rockwood was in the National Guard in the 1960s. He joined the State Guard earlier this year at the age of 76.

(Rockwood) “Back in my National Guard days I was a company commander. They took me into the Vermont State Guard as a company commander. I’ve got guys in my company, younger, stronger guys who can handle the grunt work if it’s needed.”

(Zind) Rockwood says State Guard service is fulfilling and he likes the camaraderie. Technically, Rockwood is too old to serve in the State Guard.

(Rockwood) “There are several of us beyond the age of 70. They gave us a waiver. We’re all young 75s and 76s.”

(Zind) Rockwood says he’ll leave the State Guard when he turns 80. The Vermont State Guard hasn’t been mobilized since it was reestablished 22 years ago. But as more Vermont National Guard members are sent overseas, the possibility of a State Guard call-up seems greater than ever before.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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