Governors worried about increasing demands on National Guard units want to hear from the Bush administration about its long-term strategy in the fight against terrorism.
State leaders raised their concerns in a private meeting with the top Guard general and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.
“It’s not that we’re not supportive of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq,” said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. “We have to kind of step back and rethink the whole picture.” Like other governors, he said the part-time soldiery has seen a transformation in recent years.
Guard and Reserve soldiers make up about 22 percent the forces in Iraq. That level is expected to rise to nearly 40 percent as a result of force rotations in the coming months.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, which oversees all reserve forces, made a private presentation to governors at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
The governors attended a formal dinner at the White House Sunday night and were welcomed by President Bush, who said the nation needs to remain vigilant against terrorism.
“We’re still at war,” Bush said. “The war on terror is a new kind of war in which every American is threatened and every level of government must work together.”
The military demands in Iraq and Afghanistan give governors, who technically are commanders in chief of their state units, a heightened interest in the development of U.S. foreign policy. The reliance on the part-time soldiers will have a ripple effect, governors said.
“We’ve got a real retention issue,” said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the Air Force Reserve.
“You’re going to see just an emptying, when people’s tickets are up, ... of Guardsmen not stepping up to the plate,” he said.
Said Democrat Tom Vilsack of Iowa: “We need two things — predictability and stability.”
States often rely on their Air and Army Guard units to help in emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes or riots. In the past two years, their roles has expanded even more, assisting in homeland security patrols.
The part-time soldiers are brought under federal control for missions such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are roughly 500,000 members of the Guard. With the reserves, there are over 1 million civilian soldiers.
Deployment management plan
According to a document obtained by The Associated Press, Blum told governors that the goal was to manage deployment so half of each state’s units would remain at home and be available for state needs; one-quarter would be deployed for federal needs; and one-quarter would be going through intensive training for deployment.
Some states now have 40 percent or more of their Guard troops overseas.
Blum, speaking as he and staff ran through a multimedia presentation before the meeting, said his goal was to change the Guard so governors could have a predictable number of troops to rely on.
“Governors are uniquely challenged right now,” he said. “The Guard itself is really transforming, at lightning speed, from an old Cold War, strategic reserve based on deterrence — only to be called up in event of global war — and we moved from that to an operational reserve.”
Blum said he hopes to balance deployments geographically so one state does not end up seeing three-quarters of its reserve deployed overseas while others lose just a few.
The extended deployments overseas takes its tolls on families, on local businesses, and on state economies, governors said.
'These are people we need'
“They’re coming from the community. It may be a police officer, it may be a milk carrier, it may be a teacher,” said Republican Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho.
Huckabee, who has seen more than 40 percent of Arkansas’ Guard deployed, said, “It’s like having a sudden job reduction of over 4,300 people. These are people we need, people we can’t do without.”
Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico said the presentation was positive and also somber, especially when Blum put on the screen the names of all the Guard members who have died in Iraq.
Vilsack said he was encouraged. “This is a Guard that wants to be prepared and relevant,” he said.
But there were broader lessons that reflected harshly on Bush’s record, said Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
“This whole situation is a reflection of the Bush administration’s miscalculations of what it was going to take to provide security and stability in Iraq,” he said.
Huckabee said the discussion is about broader changes in the military, not politics. “Hopefully we’ll have a real dialogue.”