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Who's Guarding Montana from a Firestorm?

BILLINGS, Montana -- As fire season gets underway in Montana this summer, the Pentagon's increased reliance on the state's National Guard to help fight our foreign wars has turned into a serious local issue.

Brian Schweitzer, the Democratic Governor of this state, reviewed the potential emergencies that face Montana, largely a massive fire danger this summer due to low snowpack levels and insect infestations in trees, and requested the Pentagon to rotate more Guard troops out of Iraq and into Montana for the critical fire months of July and August.

Schweitzer has been among the most outspoken governors on the Pentagon’s overuse of the Guard, which has left states without key resources to deal with natural disasters and local defense. He's frustrated that 1,300 of Montana’s roughly 3,500 National Guard soldiers and airmen have been called up to active duty, deployed as military police to Afghanistan, Iraq and locations across the United States. Schweitzer says that Washington has placed the burden of domestic defense on governors without providing them the tools. "I said, 'look, you have told me that I, as governor, am responsible first and foremost for national security in Montana -- don't come crying to Washington.'"

The Pentagon's response to Schweitzer's request for more Guard troops this summer was brief. "There wasn't a conversation," he says. "The answer wasn't how many assets. The answer wasn't when. The answer was just no. So you've got commanders-in-chief and we're told to plan. And when we do, we're told no."

One of the problems with fire planning is that no one really knows what the fire danger will be in any given year. But from early on in 2005, fire experts have predicted a summer of blaze for Montana, which has had seven straight years of drought. In 2000, the last year that Montana had serious wildfires, the state required not only National Guard forces, but also a battalion of regular Army troops help fight the fires.

In Montana and elsewhere in the dry-land West, governors are concerned about fires. In Florida, the Guard is occasionally called out to respond to hurricanes. Each state, Schweitzer argues, has its own needs and times when it knows it may face emergency situations: tornado season, hurricane season, mudslide season, fire season.

Governors and state leaders across the country share Schweitzer's concerns. The issue cuts across partisan lines, with Democratic governors like Ted Kulongoski of Oregon expressing concerns right alongside Republican Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho. Kulongoski told the Oregonian that the federal government's growing use of the Guard is not "good for the states, and I don't think it's good for the National Guard." And Kempthorne, who often works on National Guard issues on behalf of the National Governors Association, sent a letter to the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau expressing concern about the bureau's commitment to ensure that states have adequate resources to deal with emergencies.

Governor Schweitzer says that if the Pentagon would just simply listen to governors, a plan that balanced the emergency response needs of the states with the military needs of the federal government could be worked out. The problem is that the federal government isn't working with governors.

The Pentagon counters that it has put guidelines in place to ensure that states are not left helpless in the case of emergencies. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, who oversees the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, has pledged that the federal government will not call up more than 50% of a state's Guard personnel. In the case that more personnel is needed, Major Scott Smith of the Montana National Guard says that Mutual Aid Compacts and federal assistance can overcome a shortfall.

But part of the problem is that the shortfall for firefighting and local defense is not simply in personnel. There are also equipment issues. Montana relied on Guard machinery to help put out the wildfires in 2000, and many of the helicopter mechanics who help fight the fires were members of the Guard or Reserves. Schweitzer ticks off a list of physical assets that are overseas: Humvees, low bed trailers, and 10 of the state's 12 Black Hawk helicopters. And while the state still has helicopters in other departments, many of the pilots and crews have been called up for service outside Montana.

Max Baucus, Montana's senior U.S. Senator, recently raised concerns about a Pentagon plan to remove jets from Montana's Air National Guard that are used to patrol the northernmost border. Citing the length of Montana's border, Baucus wrote in a letter to Undersecretary of Defense Michael Wynne, "It is, quite frankly, a very high risk to shore up security on the nation's southern border, while cutting Homeland Security forces such as the Montana Air National Guard at the northern border."

Baucus' concern was roundly mocked by one Montana columnist as being nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to bring home more pork funding. But given that terrorists have attempted to access the United States via Canada -- in one case with a car loaded full of explosives -- the danger is not purely speculative.

And, foolish or not, local civilian defense is the Guard's historic function. In 2003, Gary Hart reminded us in The American Prospect that the National Guard has always served as America's second military -- the one that defends within the nation's borders. Jack Spencer of the conservative Heritage Foundation argued on similar lines in a 2002 memorandum that the decentralized structure of the National Guard is the ideal response vehicle for domestic attacks -- the minutemen are needed still today.

The underlying cause of the Guard deployments out of state, then, is not a product of sound policy regarding what’s best for the defense of the country. Rather, it’s a mixture of decision-making on the fly at the Pentagon and an unrealistic attempt to jettison our Cold War-era defense posture. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), one of the fundamental principles of the neo-conservative set that took root when Donald Rumsfeld signed on as secretary of defense in 2001, states that the American military no longer requires huge standing armies, but rather a smaller, fast, light, professional force. Such a change was acceptable, the thinking went, because unlike during the Cold War, America in the 21st Century wouldn’t be dealing with lengthy occupations or local insurgencies.

Snark aside, as RMA became a governing principle of the military and Rumsfeld pooh-poohed General Shinseki's 2002 estimate of the number of troops it would require to stabilize Iraq, it soon became clear that someone other than traditional army would be required to secure the sandbox. The task has since fallen increasingly to the National Guard and the Reserves.

International engagements are not new for the Guard, which was deployed in the Mexican War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Gulf War I, but observers say that it’s the military’s dependence upon the Guard that’s new. "Five years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, this wouldn't have happened," says Schweitzer.

And, as a result, the National Guard is increasingly reporting the same problem America's other military faces: recruiting shortfalls, which also has Governors nervous. Major Scott Smith, the public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard, says that its numbers have started to rebound from a recent decline, but acknowledges that, like other military branches, the Montana Guard has "seen a short downturn in recruiting since the outbreak of hostilities." In 2001, the Montana Guard had 460 new members enter, either from one of the service branches or as new recruits. Last year, by comparison, the Guard only had 360 members sign up. Smith is optimistic though, noting that the Guard is on track to hit 425 this year, indicating that recruitment has stabilized and is rebounding.

Montana State Representative Kevin Furey (D), who serves in the Army Reserves as a transportation control specialist and was deployed in Iraq prior to his election to the Montana House, can explain why the recruiting numbers have dropped. Furey, who enlisted in 2001, says, "When I was recruited, it wasn't one of their selling points that I would probably be activated right away." Even after 9/11, he says, there was little sense among reservists and Guard members that large-scale call-ups would be necessary. That only came with the invasion of Iraq.

Furey says he wasn't alone in his assumptions. The others who served with him in Iraq, including students, teachers, small business owners, a carpenter, a mechanic, and a chiropractor, generally enlisted with the understanding that Reserves are a last line of defense.

Furey also noted the economic and social impacts that arise from pulling citizen-soldiers abroad. "A lot of members of the Guard and Reserves are working class or they own small businesses. Without them, there's two or three employees, maybe more depending on how large they are, that don't do as well. It's a missing teacher that affects children's development. It's a missing parent. It's one less person."

When asked how the public, and members of the Guard and their families in particular, are responding to his criticisms of the shift in policy, Governor Schweitzer admits that the response has been mixed.

"Some guardsmen appreciate that they have a governor who recognizes their role as homeland security. Others don't see that. They're proud to be in Iraq. I'm proud of them too. I'm proud of our warriors in Montana. We've produced more warriors as a percentage of population than almost any other state. We're proud of that. But there's another mission here at home. We need to make sure the two are copacetic."

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