CAKE CUTTING
Maj. Gen. Joe Harkey, commander of the Alabama National Guard Theater Support Command, and new Guard enlistee Brandy Metzler raise the sword after cutting the National Guard's birthday cake during a breakfast birthday program Friday. The National Guard was established on Dec. 13, 1636.

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- In the face of growing national budget constraints and cutbacks in the military, the National Guard is postured to provide best value with the least expense, according to one of Alabama's top National Guard leaders.

Speaking at a local celebratory breakfast sponsored Friday by the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army to recognize the Guard's 374th birthday, Maj. Gen. Joe Harkey, commander of the Guard's 167th Theater Support Command based in Alabama, said the Guard has provided crucial support for the Army's active duty component. That support has been most evident since the tragic events of 9/11 and the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism.

"At one time in Iraq, 50 percent of the force was supplied by the National Guard and the Reserve while at the same time we were operating off 7 percent of the total Army budget," he said. "We are a cost benefit to the nation."

While that figure is focused on the Army element of the Guard, Harkey went on to say that the Air Guard provides about 50 percent of the Air Force capability while operating off 13 percent of the Air Force budget.

Since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, the National Guard has transitioned from a strategic reserve to an operational force, Harkey said, taking on both a state and national mission.

"This nation cannot go to war without us," the commander said.

"And there's a reason for that. When the nation goes to war, it wants small town America, all of America involved in that war."

In Alabama, there are about 11,200 Army Guard Soldiers and about 2,300 Air Guard airmen.

"We have a good size Guard force in the country. We are probably sixth in the nation in size. But when you go by population, we are number one in size," Harkey said. "We have tremendous patriotism in this state."

Alabama is home to four one-star or higher Guard commands: the Troop Command, the 31st Chemical Brigade, the 135th Sustainment Command and the 167th.

Harkey said the Guard is promoting the idea of dual-use equipment, which could be used both to defend the nation and during natural disasters within the nation's borders.

"Equipment for natural disasters is not funded in the Army budget," Harkey said. "All money is geared toward use in places outside the U.S. We are pushing for some of that budget to develop our capabilities within the U.S."

For the Air Guard in Alabama, Harkey said the goal is to get air units recapitalized. Currently, the Air Guard flies F-16s. Those need to be replaced with F-35s, he said.

"To be relevant and to stay relevant, we need equipment not only to support the federal mission, but also to have capabilities within our borders," Harkey said.

The state's Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Jones said the Alabama Guard is made up of 75 separate companies of Soldiers dedicated to the mission. Since 9/11, more than 12,600 Alabama Guard Soldiers have deployed, with an average of about 1,500 a year.

"This is not just a job. It's not just wearing the uniform. It's being a good citizen Soldier," Jones said.

The command sergeant major said keeping the Guard "relevant, ready and in the fight" will rely on funding, retention of Soldiers and the recruiting of Soldiers like Brittany Metzler of Huntsville, who enlisted about a month ago. She will go to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in June followed by her advanced individual training at Fort Lee, Va. She is currently a Calhoun Community College student who is considering going on to major in biochemistry at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

"I joined for the adventure," said Metzler, who wants to be an explosive ordnance disposal Soldier. "I like the challenge of EOD. People said I couldn't do it. But I know I can. I'll be gone for training for a year and then I can come back to school at UAH. This has been a great experience."

The Guard has very few slots open in Alabama and those that are will be filled with "quality, qualified people," recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Henshaw said. "Brittany is our upcoming future of the National Guard."

Page last updated Thu December 16th, 2010 at 15:04