The Changing of the Guard

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Army photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika

McKinley as a lieutenant general commanding the Air National Guard in 2008

I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.

The sentiment is usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but as of this week it works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, too.

That’s because when President Obama signed the 2012 defense bill on New Year’s Eve, the new law ordered Air Force General Craig McKinley, head of the National Guard Bureau, to join the nation’s six top military officers as a full-fledged member of the Joint Chiefs (the other members are the chairman and vice chairman, who the President taps from among the four military services, plus the Army and Air Force chiefs, the chief of naval operations, and the Marine commandant).

The Guard has been fighting for membership in the nation’s most exclusive military club for years. Obama promised it to the nation’s so-called “weekend warriors” during the 2008 campaign. Congress wrote it into law in 2011, over the objections of the sitting chiefs.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, detailed his opposition at his confirmation hearing last summer. “I just don’t know what that would do to the relationship, if we had now two four-stars overseeing the same force, because we aspire to be one force,” Dempsey delicately explained. Besides, the National Guard doesn’t have a budget like the services do. “If it weren’t for the budget, no one would even pay attention to me,” Dempsey observed, summing up the Washington ethos. “If we have a National Guard four-star on the Joint Chiefs, he’s not accountable, because he doesn’t have anything with which to deliver capability.”

Congress created the Joint Chiefs of Staff just after World War II with four members: a chairman, and the chiefs of the three major services (the Marine commandant was merely an adviser). The commandant became a full member in 1979, boosting the JCS population to five. The sitting chiefs opposed his membership. The sixth member – the vice chairman – was added by Congress in the Goldwater-Nichols military reorganization act in 1986. The military opposed Goldwater-Nichols, too.

The Pentagon’s press shop issued a release Tuesday hailing McKinley’s appointment to the Joint Chiefs. It quoted…only McKinley:

“We are grateful for the efforts the executive and legislative bodies have gone to in placing the chief of the National Guard Bureau on the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” McKinley said. “We look forward to working alongside the other Joint Chiefs to provide our nation’s senior leaders with a fuller picture of the nonfederalized National Guard as it serves in support of homeland defense and civil support missions.”

None of the other chiefs is quoted in the piece; Dempsey’s blog, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter feeds also are mute on the chairman’s new colleague. But, history shows us that opposition to new members by current members is nothing new; the Coast Guard, whose commandant attends Joint Chiefs sessions if he’s invited by the chairman, could be the next member, perhaps followed by the Homeland Security secretary (if you want to join the Joint Chiefs — it helps when you’re seeking employment, Battleland has noted — petition your congressional representative here).

“The Guard has grown to become a front-line, 21st Century force, but it is trapped in a 20th Century Pentagon bureaucracy,” Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who championed the elevation, said when the Senate ordered the change Nov. 28. “This will help clear away those cobwebs and give the Guard a voice in the Pentagon that befits the scale of its missions here and overseas.”

McKinley, 59, began his Guard career with the Florida Air National Guard in 1980 flying T-33 Shooting Star and F-106 Delta Dart aircraft. Three years ago, he became the first four-chief of the National Guard Bureau (per congressional mandate), the Guard’s forward headquarters close to the Pentagon.

The change gives McKinley and the 460,000 Guard personnel he represents a seat at the military’s highest level as it weighs budget cuts that could reach $1 trillion over the coming decade. “I have been in every high level meeting that I’m allowed to attend, and that’s everything up to include the tank sessions with the Joint Chiefs,” he said over a 2010 breakfast. But, of course, his guaranteed presence at the table from here on out means one thing to the other six active-duty members: every dollar McKinley gets for the Guard will be a dollar less for their active-duty forces.

Senior Guard officers have long felt that many of their active-duty counterparts view them as second-rate. That view may have had merit before 9/11, when they were simply sitting on the sidelines, playing war games one weekend a month and two weeks a year. They constituted the nation’s strategic reserve.

But the Guard has been put through the wringer since 9/11. No longer a strategic reserve, it has instead become part of the operational force. Unfortunately, Guard members tend to come home to small towns instead of big military bases. And that’s apparently led to a spike in suicides among part-time troops, compared to their active-duty counterparts, who lack the comprehensive on-base mental-health facilities available to full-time troops.

Maybe having McKinley sitting at the table with his now-fellow Joint Chiefs will lead to some new thinking about how better to utilize the Guard force – a key concern amid tightening military budgets — and take better care of them once they return home.

Oh, and one more thing: there’s probably no truth the rumor, Pentagon sources insist, that McKinley will be made to fetch coffee for the other members of the Joint Chiefs when they hold their regular meetings in the tank deep inside the Pentagon.