Sun, Nov 23, 2014 ●
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Short Relief: More to Maine National Guard story than meets the eye

Opinion

Short Relief: More to Maine National Guard story than meets the eye

With all the attention being paid to the Maine National Guard’s 133rd Battalion (at least 16 pieces in the local paper in the last 30 days), I wanted to learn more about the situation.

The U.S. Militia is composed of all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 17 and 45, and of female members of the National Guard. It contains two classes: an organized militia consisting of the National Guard and Naval Militia, and an unorganized militia consisting of the remaining young, able-bodied males.

The National Guard is a dual, federal-state force of about 450,000 members. About 350,000 are in the Army National Guard and about 100,000 are in the Air National Guard. Guard members fall into three general, military occupation categories: combat, combat support (such as engineering), and combat service support (such as supply, maintenance, and transportation).

The Guard’s federal mission includes serving as a reserve force available to augment the active military when needed, such as for national defense, war-fighting, or to respond to national emergencies. In this capacity, the Guard provided about 40-50 percent of the overall fighting force used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which was a strain, to say the least. The Guard’s state mission includes maintaining its own readiness and being available to respond to state emergencies.

It has a dual command structure. When employed for federal purposes, the president is in charge. He exercises his authority through the secretary of defense, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and the state adjunct general in each state. When employed for state purposes, a state’s governor is in charge.

But Congress is not without a role. Its Armed Services committees oversee the services, and members of Congress have never been shy about exerting their influence where the Guard is concerned.

The Guard is primarily funded with federal dollars. For fiscal year 2015, the president requested about $12 billion to fund its operation and maintenance. When the Guard is deployed for state purposes, the state is supposed to reimburse the federal government for the cost of those services.

The Guard is a vestige of the original colonial militias that were mustered in response to the threats of the times. When the United States was formed, it resisted having an army. It allowed Congress to raise and support an army as needed, but not to keep it standing.

In the first instance, our country relied on the state militias to repel invasion, suppress insurrection and execute federal law. The country recognized the people’s right to bear arms because those militias were thought necessary to national security. It gave Congress the power to organize, arm, discipline and govern the militias in service to the country. It reserved for the states the authority to appoint officers in, and train, the militia.

It didn’t take long for the country to realize that it needed a regular army. Over time, the role of the militia evolved. In the early 1900s, Congress required the states to divide their militias into organized militias called National Guard and reserve militias. National Guardsmen held dual commissions from both the federal and their state’s governments.

The Maine contingent of the National Guard consists of about 3,000 members, of which about 2,000 are Army National Guard and about 1,000 are Air National Guard. It is headquartered in Augusta and present in 15 locales around the state. It has three battalions, including the 133rd in Gardiner. It also has six engineering companies, in Belfast, Caribou, Lewiston, Norway, Skowhegan, and Westbrook. The Air National Guard also has an engineering squadron.

The 133rd’s mission is to support combat effectiveness by performing mobility, survivability and general engineering tasks. It hasn’t always been an engineering battalion. It started out as light infantry in the early 1800s. In the early 1900s, it became an artillery unit defending the coast. In the 1950s, it became an armored cavalry unit. It became an engineering battalion in 1970.

The armed forces are in the midst of another restructuring that started around 2003. That restructuring is prompted by the need to reorganize to meet new challenges, such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and natural disasters, and by the need to economize generally, but also in response to the expansion of mandatory entitlement programs and the 2013 sequester in particular.

The goal is to make the Army a more flexible, capable, deployable, modular force. The overhaul includes making the National Guard less of a strategic reserve and more of an operational force that is integrated with the active military and more readily available to be mobilized and deployed.

As part of the overhaul, the Army will reduce from 570,000 to 450,000 soldiers or fewer. The National Guard will downsize and restructure to stay in step with the Army. It is a massive undertaking that includes changing laws and policies, organizational structures, personnel systems, the roles and missions of services and personnel, and equipment.

Guard units cannot be relocated without the consent of the governor of their state. In February, Gov. Paul LePage joined the nation’s other governors in signing a letter to the president objecting to proposed cuts to the Guard because it is an essential state partner and offering to work together to find an acceptable alternative.

News coverage gives the impression that the possibility that the 133rd will be relocated to Pennsylvania is a local decision, botched by LePage. That is not the full story.