When Capt. Dustin Cammack joined the National Guard in 1996 to help pay his tuition at the University of Illinois, he planned that his commitment would be short and he would not likely be deployed into armed conflict.
“My first thought was, ‘Six years, and then I’ll get out of the military,’” said Cammack, Chicago Public Affairs officer for the Illinois National Guard.
Cammack’s “six years” became a 17-year history with the National Guard. He watched it transform from a standing force to an operational force in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2004, he served in Iraq for two years. He was redeployed in 2009 to Afghanistan. He now continues his service out-of-combat as a PAO.
“There wasn’t a whole lot going on in the world before 9/11,” said Cammack. “I guess you know it can happen when you enlist, but it really wasn’t on my mind at the time.”
As the armed forces began withdraw from the Middle East, the National Guard was poised to make another transformation. The question stands as to whether the Guard will remain an operational force, revert back to a standing force or take on a new role all together.
The National Guard, the longest standing component of the Armed Forces of the United States, serves a dual purpose: they have an obligation to both state governments and the national government.
“Our first priority is the state of Illinois. You’ll find that across all the state guards,” said Cammack. “But our second is to the federal government to fight the nation’s wars, although we didn’t see a lot of action pre-9/11.”
The National Guard, which serves as a reserve force of the military, is comprised of mainly volunteers. These volunteers are diverse in their age group and level of experience with the Military. Like Cammack, many are seeking financial relief, especially from student loans. Maj. Brad Leighton, the current Illinois Public Affairs director of the Illinois National Guard, attended the University of Massachusetts on the National Guard’s pay.
“Looking into college, my father had just lost his job and I’d just spent a year at a Catholic school which was very expensive,” said Leighton. “The Massachusetts National Guard had a bill that waived a tuition at state schools, so I joined and went to U-Mass on a free ride.”
The commitment to the National Guard is also less time consuming than any other military branch, allowing guardsmen to separate civilian life from military life.
“It’s just one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, with the obvious potential of being deployed on a mission at home or abroad,” said Leighton. “We get the great benefits of being in the military and we do our jobs, but we also live civilian lives. When you’re deploying the guard, you’re deploying America.”
The missions vary year to year, but the Guard’s focus remains the same: protect and serve those who need it. The National Guardsmen all live by the same motto: “Always Ready, Always There.”
The National Guard during Iraq and Afghanistan
For over 375 years, the National Guard has been called to respond to natural disasters, emergencies and issues that arise across the globe.
“From the American revolution through the most recent wars, we’ve been called up to help with floods, snow storms, and, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, some of the worst natural disasters,” said Leighton. “It’s our duty as a dual-mission service to be ready for the call.”
But before the turn of the century, foreign deployments were usually one-month stints. Since the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism, most deployments abroad are a minimum of 12 months.
The Illinois National Guard has deployed more than 22,000 soldiers and airmen to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and lost 33 soldiers and one airman overseas. Leighton was in the Guard for 16 years before even being deployed.
“I’d been in the guard since 1988, and still not traveled abroad,” said Leighton. “I heard earlier in probably 2004 that I’d be going into the war. But I volunteered because I owed it to the military.”
When President George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism in 2001, the National Guard watched its role change from a reserve force to an active member of the military. The federal deployment of units abroad became common, as troops were sent overseas to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think there was anyone who joined the Guard after 2001 who didn’t expect to go overseas,” said Leighton. “But war doesn’t make things easier on families.”
But with the deployment of most other military branches in effect, the National Guard was essential in support of the war efforts. According to a Congressional Research Services report from 2008, the National Guard made up seven percent of the U.S. forces in Iraq.
“We have become an operational force as opposed to a strategic reserve,” said Brig. Gen. William Cobetto, the Illinois National Guard’s Assistant Adjutant General. “If you go back in our country’s history the National Guard was a strategic reserve.”
Members of each unit leave behind unique responsibilities to their families, education or careers. Others were called on multiple deployments, and find that each tour presents different challenges. Cammack, for instance, went on two deployments. During his first tour he was single, but he left for his second just 60 days after his wedding. He said that the responsibility of having a family changed his outlook on the deployment.
“As a single guy, I was out there doing my training and I was very much focused on me,” said Cammack. “When you have a family, the whole paradigm shifts.”
The process through which members are called up to assist the federal government is complex. Cobetto says that most of the men are willing to volunteer to go in to combat, but find it difficult to explain the decision to leave to their families.
“If you tell your wife and kid, ‘I volunteered’ versus ‘I mobilized,’ there are some nuances there,” said Cobetto.
With its increasing deployments overseas, however, the Guard changed. The six-year commitment people expected often became longer than 10 years. The brief periods spent overseas began to lengthen.
“Deployments change everybody,” said Cammack. “It was kind of a shock, but if I’m needed and I’m asked to go, then I’ll go.”
As the responsibilities of the National Guard shifted, leaders worried that the possibility of fighting in the Middle East would hurt recruitment among those people that sought a lesser commitment. However, Cobetto said that recruiting was only minimally impacted.
“Coming off 9/11, it didn’t hurt recruitment because there was a lot of patriotism, our numbers were up,” said Cobetto. “Right now, as this war continues to be the longest war this country has ever had, our recruiting numbers are down just a little bit. As a matter of fact, we’re still surprised our numbers are where they are.”
The Guard also has to compete with the same work force that is suitable for careers in law enforcement. However, the poor economy has helped the Guard’s recruitment numbers stay higher. It provides jobs that relate to many different backgrounds, such as those in communication, medicine and engineering. But with the drawdown of troops overseas as the war on terror comes to an end, the Guard still has an important role both nationally and internationally.
The Future of the Guard
In 2011, President Obama announced the U.S. would begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in an attempt to phase American troops out of the conflict. Leaders at the Chicago NATO Summit in May 2012 reinforced this notion. They reached an agreement to turn over control of security to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014.
With a larger portion of the Guard serving overseas in recent years, a few challenges have presented themselves. PTSD, homelessness and unemployment are a few of the many hurdles veterans face.
While these issues were apparent in the active forces for some time, the National Guard was not used to so many of its members returning from combat. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that suicides among soldiers serving on active duty decreased modestly in 2010 while the Army National Guard saw an increase in the number of soldiers taking their own lives.
Cammack said his personal struggle with returning from combat was the struggle of adjusting from the structure of the military to married life and a civilian job.
“Instead of answering to a colonel, you’re answering to a wife,” said Cammack. “You have to communicate differently. You can’t talk to her like a soldier.”
As the Guard made a transition into a more operational force, the Army had to recognize and devote resources to new issues among its reserve troops coming home. Once this issue was acknowledged, Congress created the Yellow Guard reintegration program was created in the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. It provides information, services and outreach programs to National Guardsmen and their families throughout all phases of the deployment cycle.
“We had to recognize that a problem that the active forces had already recognized,” said Cobetto. “Since then, the Guard has been a tremendous help to those coming home”
Cammack and Leighton each had a unique reintegration experience. Leighton says his relied on family to help make the transition easier.
“It was absolutely terrific to return home,” said Leighton. “It can cause some stress to get back in the fold but being away actually strengthened my relationship.”
Additionally, Cammack says working as a PAO for the Guard after deployment did a great deal to ease his transition home. The Guard provided a work experience with people from a shared military background and job security.
“One increment of stress coming home both times came from the question, ‘When I leave, will my job still be there when I come home?” said Cammack.
As it was before, the National Guard’s first priority will continue to be the security of each state. National Guard troops were essential to Hurricane Sandy. According to the United States Army, more than 61,000 Guardsmen were available to assist local law enforcement in affected states.
“The threats on our homeland will keep us occupied and busy,” said Cobetto. “A lot of states do not have the capacity to respond to the national disasters we’ve been seeing. That’s where we come in.”
The Illinois Guard, in particular, will continue to train with local law enforcement to prepare for local flooding disasters and to protect resources. If the active duty forces shrink, the Guard is a good place to put them.
“Right along with serving overseas, we’ve had a domestic focus too,” said Leighton. “We’re not deploying the whole guard overseas. We always have guardsmen back here.”
With the drawdown, it is more difficult for those reserve troops who want to transition to active duty to do so.
“It’s tougher and more competitive,” said Cobetto. “We take all those members we can get and that’s what helped our numbers stay really high.”
The transformation of the Guard into an operational force was a significant investment, and the Guard is not likely to revert to a standing force. The National Guard is also more cost-effective than the active force. It is an inexpensive force to maintain.
“It’s important to keep the guard strong,” said Cobetto. “I don’t think the work will diminish just because we wind down in Afghanistan or Iraq. We’ll help stabilize their region.”
This stabilization is one way the Guard will revert to a role it had years ago as a building capacity. Many state Guards are in partnerships with developing countries. They help governments and militaries develop their own forces. Illinois is the only state partnered with Poland. This relationship is unique because Illinois has the largest state population of Polish immigrants and their descendants.
Although the tasks of the National Guard may change in the near future, their objectives will not. They will continue to have a place internationally as well as nationally. Cobetto says the strength of the Guard is its ability to respond to whatever the future may hold.
“It kind of depends on what happens,” said Cobetto. “The whole idea of remaining an operational force is any time you can get called. And we are ready to answer that call.”