Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Fire season is always a major concern out West, but it's been an especially big planning headache for governors of some states where large numbers of National Guard troops have been mobilized for duty abroad. In Idaho, 81 percent of the Army National Guard is currently deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense, and when Guard members are serving on federal missions, they're not available for any state tasks. "National Guard guys are one of the key labor pools that governors rely on when the fires really get rolling," says Mike Journee, a spokesman for Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne. "This is the fourth year of a pretty severe drought throughout the West, so the potential for fire hazards is high."
With tens of thousands of Guardsmen stationed overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, many governors have worried over the past couple of years about being caught short if a natural--or manmade-- disaster should strike at home. Although about half of the nation's 457,000 Guard members have served in federal deployments since September 11, 2001, the feds still haven't thought through all the repercussions--for instance, the fact that the personnel they're sending overseas are often the same troops that states count on in their homeland security plans. But will Idaho, or any other state, really be left helpless in the event of an emergency? The answer is, almost certainly not.
When you count members of the Idaho Air National Guard, only about 5 percent of whom have been mobilized for federal duty, Idaho still has half of its Guard on call for the state. What's more, Idaho, like most states, has reciprocal agreements with its neighbors so that during crises it can expect help from Washington, Oregon and elsewhere. And, of course, there are always private contractors ready and willing to help out when government forces fall short.
States do face some serious challenges, though. Equipment that they might want to have handy during a fire, such as Blackhawk helicopters, may be whirling around the Balkans instead. The types of specially- trained troops that are most useful in a natural disaster--engineers, truck drivers and military police--turn out to be the same sort that are most useful to the federal Department of Defense right now. That's why some units are spending what appears to be more than their fair share of time overseas, leaving their home states without as much manpower.
Partly in response to concerns about the disproportionate load being borne by some states, the federal National Guard Bureau has come up with a plan for a complete reorganization. Specially trained soldiers are going to be spread out, so that the burden is shared more evenly. Under the transformation plan, no more than 25 percent of the National Guard in any state would be subject to federal mobilization and deployment at a time. An additional 25 percent could be on alert for the same duty. But that would leave no less than 50 percent of a state's Guard fully at the governor's disposal. Governors and their adjutant generals (who serve as the governor's aide in supervising the military department of the state) have embraced the plan. "Not only is the plan welcome but it is urgently necessary," says New York Governor George Pataki.
The plan is going to take a couple of years, at least, to implement. But in the meantime, there are still plenty of soldiers left to stack sandbags for the states. Absent a hot shooting war, for instance, there are more Guard artillerymen around than the feds can use. They may not have the ideal specialized skills to help cope with an emergency, but at least they provide governors with thousands of ready and willing hands for jobs that don't require much training. "In response to state disasters, a lot of it is just muscle work, so to speak," says Rick Patterson, of the National Guard in Washington, another heavily deployed state. "Obviously you can paint some kind of Hollywood disaster with four things happening at once, but we have no doubt that there are sufficient Guardsmen on hand to respond to anything the governor can throw our way."
The National Guard, which dates back to 1636, is one of the more curious federal-state joint efforts. Normally, Guardsmen train and serve only one weekend a month and for a couple of weeks in the summer, but they are subject to the call of the governor (their commander-in-chief) in times of natural or manmade disasters. They also must be available for federal deployment for emergencies and military conflicts. While they are serving under the Defense Department, the feds pay their salaries and any other costs associated with the mobilization, but the states pay for their own call-ups. National Guard troops patrolling airports at the president's request have done so at federal expense, but governors have picked up the tab when using Guardsmen to secure bridges and power plants. Today, given post-Cold War troop reductions, the National Guard is part of the Pentagon's planning for just about any conflict larger than an invasion of Panama or Grenada.
The Guard gives states the luxury of having a federally equipped and trained force at their disposal. States have come to rely more and more on their National Guard troops for emergencies. Since relatively few of them were ever called for federal service during the Korean and Vietnam wars, states started thinking that the main purpose of the Guard was to help solve their problems. "There is this image that a lot of state officials and some Guard officers had: They thought the primary mission was state missions, and this is false," says Barry Stentiford, a Grambling State University historian, who has written a book about the Guard.
Throughout most of American history, governors could, in effect, veto federal call-ups of their troops, and occasionally did. This issue came to the fore most recently during the 1980s, when a majority of governors resisted sending Guardsmen for military "training" exercises in Central America. In 1986, Congress passed a statute making it clear that federal authority was preeminent. Several governors sued to overturn the new law, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against them.
In the present situation, many governors have expressed concern about being caught short, but none have questioned the federal mission of the Guard. In fact, states have tried to be generous in support of such missions, passing new laws to aid their Guardsmen. Wisconsin, for instance, will now make up any difference for state employees between their normal pay and what they receive for Guard duty; it also allows them to bank their unused vacation time. In addition, the state this year made new residents serving in the Guard eligible for in-state tuition. Alabama Governor Bob Riley in June set up a toll-free number for troops and their families seeking help with medical, employment, credit or other problems.
States remain concerned, however, about defining the role of the National Guard in homeland-security situations. In about half the states, the adjutant general, who runs the Guard, is also the coordinator for civil emergencies. A large proportion of Guardsmen are fire fighters and law enforcement officers, leaving some states and localities feeling extra vulnerable when they are called away. The federal Defense and Homeland Security departments have not crafted plans for use of the Guard in homeland-security missions or agreed on training, organizing or equipment needs specific to such missions. The fact that more than 70,000 troops have been transferred to fill shortages in units that are deploying for the feds has left some states worried about the readiness of their remaining units, which have also been stripped of thousands of pieces of equipment. "It's the No. 1 failure of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army," Timothy Lowenberg, Washington State's adjutant general, said in congressional testimony.
The National Guard Bureau believes its new reorganization and streamlining plans will make for a more rational command-and-control structure and will leave units better prepared for both federal military and state civil emergency needs. The plan has not yet been fully worked out or paid for, but it's receiving a good response from the states and from troops. In addition to keeping a certain percentage of the Guard available to a governor at any given time, the plan guarantees Army Guardsmen that they will not have to spend more than 18 months out of every six years of service doing federal duty. "It would be nice, when people get home, they would know they would not get called again for four or five years," says John Goheen, of the National Guard Association.
Of course, just because a Guardsman comes home from an overseas mission does not mean that he or she won't be called for state duty. This spring, a couple hundred soldiers from the 1092nd Engineer Battalion of West Virginia had just arrived home from about a year in Iraq and were almost immediately tapped to help out with severe flooding in the southern part of the state. West Virginia media were filled with stories about how the Guard members had to work without respite, raising the question of what the state would have done if they had still been overseas. It turns out that they didn't need to worry. The engineers were helpful, but "we would have had enough people to help with the mission of cleaning up" without them, says Major Mike Cadle of the West Virginia National Guard. Adds a company sergeant, "Most of the people who went were out of work and wanted the money."