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From Bunker Hill to ?

What has become of the National Guard?

by Michael H. Thomson
September 21, 2003

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From Bunker Hill to ?_Michael H. Thomson-What has become of the National Guard I think Dan Quayle got a bad rap for the time he spent in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. His political opponents portrayed him as a draft dodger-as if that were such a vile preoccupation. The truth is that unless they were totally brain dead or didn’t care--every eligible male during the mid sixties to early seventies was a draft dodger, except of course those who got drafted. There were so many ways to avoid the draft; the most acceptable and contradictory was to actually enlist into the regular service-Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force. Dan Quayle and others like myself knew this.

The conventional wisdom of the time, promulgated by recruiting representatives was that enlisting gave you a choice of assignments as opposed to the draft which gave you no choice of service or assignment. Draftees were generally referred to as “cannon fodder.” Unfortunately a lot of this “fodder” was composed of poor blacks and poor whites that did not have the resources or the savvy to make other choices. If you were able to make a discerning service choice-there was a lot to think about.

All the services had their good and bad points. The Marines, of course, had those good looking uniforms-but then there was that killer boot camp to consider. The Army offered a variety of choices that were all olive drab. The Navy had a reputation for good food and exotic ports of call if you didn’t mind spending 90% of your time on a boat. Then there were the flyboys. Glamorized casual folks who made hard work seem easy. The service of choice for those who could pass the entrance requirements was definitely the Air Force!

The Air Force was perceived by many to be the best route to avoid the “real” hardships of military service. Basic training was only six weeks long compared to eight and twelve weeks for the other branches. The uniforms were soft blue-sort of like airline pilots or postal employees, and the assignments-most of the time-were very distance from potential combat areas. Also, for many years it was the Air Force’s policy to ship new recruits to its basic training center in San Antonio-first class on airlines-as opposed to a long ride by Trailways. This was unofficially known as the “champagne flight to boot camp.”

Enlisting in the Air Force or any of the other services had a downside-the length of commitment-three to four years of continuous duty at very low pay. To someone in their early twenties like Quayle and me this was too large a chunk of time to be spent painting some general’s fireplugs. Then you could always choose another alternative to joining the active military service-the National Guard or reserves.

Joining the Guard was the honorable solution to the conflict of having a life and serving one’s country. Dan Quayle like me opted for the Air National Guard-one of the Air Force’s two reserve components. Six weeks of boot camp, five more weeks of technical training, then one weekend a month and two weeks summer training for six years. 300 days of total service time as opposed to 1460. It was a very sweet deal considering the alternative of "eight weeks and 'Nam. It was also very convenient. You didn’t have to go very far away.

At the height of the Vietnam War there was a National Guard unit-Army or Air-in almost every small town in America. Citizen-soldiers whose mission it was to protect hometown, state, and nation from a long list of calamities. Floods, tornadoes, race riots, student demonstrations, hurricanes, postal strikes, and replacement units for the regular service in time of war were some of the things the Guard was called upon to do. The National Guard was the legacy of the militia units who had originally fought at Bunker Hill. How much more patriotic could you get?

The fact that National Guard units were rarely activated during the Vietnam War was neither my problem nor Quayle’s. It just happened that way. We had sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and obey the officers appointed over us. Does that sound like people evading military service? At least we didn’t go to Canada or bring children into the world needlessly to get a deferment. We did what we had to do. We were ready if any thing big were to happen. Fortunately for us, it never did. National Guard troops firing upon students at Kent State was pretty bad, but then again that was in Ohio, not in Tennessee or Indiana. We stayed very low key-particularly in the Air Force division of the Guard.

For myself the Air National Guard turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Basic training was a splash of ice water, but the rest of my service was quite an enjoyable experience. I belonged to an Air National Guard air refueling unit that performed several missions a year in Germany. I found myself volunteering for additional tours of duty each time my unit went to Rhein Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt. I visited England, Switzerland, Holland, Greece, France, Spain and Italy on my various stints of active duty with the Tennessee Air National Guard. Those big tankers flew all over the world and I tried to hitch a ride every time I got a chance. I liked it so much that after my six year obligation was completed, I went to work for the Air National Guard on a full time basis. This brings us back to the draft.

As the Vietnam War progressed the draft became very unpopular. Draft protest and draft card burning became the vogue. Casualty reports of 100 to 150 soldiers dying in rice paddies each week spawned fear in the hearts of many young men and their loved ones. This fear made the National Guard enlistment option very fashionable. By 1970 the Guard’s ranks were burgeoning. Waiting lists were employed. Some of the unscrupulous literally bought their way into the Guard. An Army National Guard technician whom I knew in Alabama told me of a $10,000 dollar offer he received from a leading banker in his town to put the banker’s son’s name at the top of the local Guard unit’s waiting list. I was naive to all of that, of course. In my case I simply drove out to the Air Guard base, took a test and a physical-then a week later said, “I do.” Sort of like getting married. A few weeks later I was in Amarillo, Texas going to boot camp.

Now some of you purists reading this will stop and say, “Hold on! The Air Force only conducts basic training in San Antonio, Texas.” You are absolutely correct-except for a brief period in 1966. Due to a hepatitis epidemic-or possibly an outbreak of meningitis-I’m not really sure- the Air Force moved some of its basic training to Amarillo Air Force Base in the Texas Panhandle. They actually had to reopen old wooden dormitories from bygone mobilizations dating back to WWII. As basic trainees we marched every day past formidable looking jet black B-52 bombers which were ominously parked on the tarmacs waiting deployment to North Vietnam. Grouchy drill instructors were reassigned and uprooted from their families and friends in San Antonio and took their fury out on us-the recruits. I absolutely hated basic training (as you are supposed to). In fact I would rather not discuss it except to say I graduated and felt like some kind of war hero after I was back on the plane heading home-enjoying my champagne.

After I finished basic training and returned to Knoxville, I discovered that my Air Guard unit was a who’s who of the local area. We had television personalities, lawyers, an Olympic champion welterweight boxer, and a great many people who would come to prominence in years to come. There weren’t many blacks, however, and absolutely no women. In fact the only black I remember was the welterweight boxing champion, an Alabamian named Clint Jackson. Who had recently done a number on a contender in Havana. Clint and I scrubbed pots together.

In 1966, the year I enlisted, National Guard units across the country were manned at 125 to 150 percent of their legal capacity. The ranks brimmed over with socially connected, prominent and soon to be prominent young men - like Dan Quayle and I - white men. This was to drastically change…

In the summer of 1973 I was working full-time for the Air Guard as an instructor for the Air National Guard’s Non-Commissioned Officer Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Vietnam War was winding down. Everyone could see which direction it was going. The draft for all practical purposes had slowed considerably. Late that summer I was approached by a senior noncom named Ernie Joseph who asked if I would be interested in going on an active duty tour with a duty assignment in the Pentagon. He explained to me what the tour was all about and mentioned a few key words that caught my attention such as advertising, recruiting, and travel. By September I had left Knoxville and was working at the Pentagon.

A team had been formed to create a recruiting advertising section for the Army and Air National Guard. I was part of it. This was part of an overall program to establish a recruiting presence for the Guard. The Guard had never needed to recruit. The pressure of the draft kept the ranks filled. When the draft started winding down, there was a mad scramble in the Guard to become competitive with the regular services for manpower. The advertising section of this effort centered its theme on a gigantic Styrofoam statue representing the minutemen of Revolutionary War times. This minuteman statue was transported in sections, assembled at various locations, and photographed with Guardsmen (women and blacks included now) in various uniforms posed in front of it. The statue even had a name, Corporal Howie, which was short for Howitzer.

Slick ads of Corporal Howie and the Guardsmen were produced and placed in national publications, TV and radio ads were developed, and various kinds of pamphlets, brochures, and information pieces were distributed across the country. I helped Colonel Stefano Stefanon pick out the post office box for the new center to receive replies to these ads, P.O.B 1776, Edgewood, Maryland. The draft was ending and waiting lists were soon to become a thing of the past. The National Guard now had to sell itself to entice fresh recruits into its ranks. I was to become one of the salesmen… but not for about six years.

A few twists and turns, a divorce, a new job, and a new marriage brought me to south Alabama in 1979. I wasn’t working for the Guard at that time although I had maintained my reserve status. I had even changed branches. The closest Air Guard unit was over 100 miles away and I didn’t want to drive that far, so I affiliated with an Army National Guard unit in Mobile.

The Army National Guard was a big change for me. Being used to the Air Guards efficiency and competitive record in out-performing the regular Air Force in many cases, I was dismayed by the Army Guards shoddiness and cronyism. The unit I affiliated with in Mobile was a “good old boys” club. Promotions were not based on job performance or test scores, but rather upon favoritism and skin color. None of this however prevented me from applying for an active duty recruiting position in a nearby town when a position opening became available.

Recruiting tours were active duty stints of three years duration with extra pay for performing the duty. Thanks to Reagan, military income had become competitive with the civilian sector to a large extent. At least that was the case in south Alabama. When I was hired by the Guard I gave myself a $12,000 annual raise over my civilian job plus free medical, dental, and commissary privileges. It was great. However, my initial indifference to the Alabama Army Guard’s “hidden" policies on racism and cronyism changed radically in 1983 when I was faced with a moral and legal crisis.

In 1983 I made national and state headlines when I refused an order from a company commander to cease and desist from recruiting blacks and women. The bad part was that my chain of command in the recruiting section refused to back me up. Thanks to an investigative reporter from the Army Times named Neil Roland my story got out to the Army and things radically changed. "Heads rolled" and reprimands were issued.

The Alabama Army National Guard today is one of the most racially diverse organizations in the entire National Guard structure. Neil Roland has gone on to become a leading correspondent with a prominent financial news service. This was a case of the power of the pen overwhelming that of the sword…

I remained on recruiting duty with the Army National Guard for 10 years, eventually transferring from Alabama to Texas to take a supervisor's position. Over the years, I have seen the Guard change from a collection of "Good Old Boys” to a real fighting force that would make those early Revolutionary War militia organizations very proud. The Guard's success in reinventing itself may bring it future problems however…

Where the Guard was under utilized during Vietnam, they are now being over utilized and stretched very thin due to worldwide deployments. They are evolving from an organization supposedly under state control to what seems to be an organization under "presidential" control. My voice is in the minority on this point, but I do not believe this was the intention of the framers of the Constitution when they created the "militia clause."

In past wars the Selective Service Act or the ability to draft young males universally put a democratic slant on military service. Politicians paid dearly when a war was viewed as unjust or unnecessary resulted in America's drafted kids paying the ultimate price. The Army and Air National Guard and the legal element of state control by the respective governors were the second level of that democratization process in the military. When the battalion commander of the local guard unit was the president of the local bank and the local fire chief was a platoon sergeant, every politician in that district knew it was very serious business when Guard units were called to active duty. We have now lost the sense of importance to those call-up actions.

National Guard units are so routinely deployed today that hardly anyone pays attention unless it’s your kid, your dad, your sister, your brother, and in some cases your mother. Guardsmen, who are all volunteers, not motivated to join by pressure of the draft as Dan Quayle and I were, in many cases look forward to the call-ups. No, you say! Yes, I say! I've been there. In my small part I helped put some of this force together. New recruits into the Guard do not drive BMW's, live in $250,000 houses, or belong to country clubs like their draft evading predecessors in the sixties. They join for skills, educational benefits, and extra income to supplement in many cases a low paying civilian job. Active duty pay for many of these folks is a boon. This finally brings me to my very cynical and paranoid point:

Suppose in some near or far off future, an unpopular presidential administration desperate to hold on to power at any cost were to play the unthinkable military card. Who would be there to provide a counterbalance? It certainly wouldn't be the National Guard. This organization has become so federal and integrated into the active duty forces that you can hardly tell them apart. Then there is the Posse Comitatus Act as defined below:

"POSSE COMITATUS ACT" (18 USC 1385): A Reconstruction Era criminal law proscribing use of Army (later, Air Force) to "execute the laws" except where expressly authorized by Constitution or Congress. Limit on use of military for civilian law enforcement also applies to Navy by regulation.

The National Guard because of the legal "catch" of it being under so-called state control is excluded from the prohibitions of this act as it pertains to civilian law enforcement processes. Very soon if it hasn't happened already, state military headquarters of the National Guard across the nation and the territories will be invaded by elements of the new Homeland Security Department due to some very subtle reorganization changes. While these changes have not made the headlines, they are nonetheless quite ominous.

And this finally leads me to say:


Comments (1)

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Mark Gaines Jessop writes:
January 8, 2006
Just a minor correction. Amarillo Air Force Base was not just used for basic training for a brief period in 1966. I had basic there from May to July of 1968.

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