TAJI, Iraq - Being ready to fight and being lethal when we do, taking care of our people and fostering an innovative culture throughout the National Guard are the priorities Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel stressed to troops during Thanksgiving holiday visits.

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, accompanied Lengyel for the eight-day visit with troops in six nations within the U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command.

Citizen-Warriors serving in Germany, Qatar, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and Djibouti are executing missions as diverse as the host nations' differing geographies, climates and challenges. The National Guard is America's military first responder in times of crisis in the homeland - a role enabled by its primary mission: providing ready forces to the Army and the Air Force. Thus more than 19,000 Guardsmen and women are serving shoulder-to-shoulder with active duty troops on every continent - including Antarctica - today.

Lengyel and Kepner saw Soldiers and Airmen serving at every level - from headquarters support to combatant commanders to individuals deployed in theater.

The chief of the National Guard Bureau and his senior enlisted advisor met with Air Guard members on the flight line in Qatar; served Thanksgiving dinner to members of all services, civilians and contractors in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan; and thanked the National Guard, active duty and Reserve members of a helicopter unit whose quick actions recently saved the lives of four service members hit by an improvised explosive device.

The two senior leaders joined troops in chow halls for meals throughout their visits in theater; they met with hundreds of service members at a time in town hall meetings - and with individual troops everywhere; they took part in promotion ceremonies, recognitions and re-enlistments.

In Iraq, they witnessed the live firing of a base defense system and discussed the challenges of maintaining communications networks, installing infrastructure, providing force protection and other missions with enlisted Soldiers.

"Spending time with troops deployed overseas or engaged in domestic response missions in the homeland is the most rewarding thing I get to do," Lengyel said. "The extraordinary professionalism and capabilities of our troops motivates and humbles me."

Regardless of where they are stationed or deployed, the troops share the responsibility of maintaining personal and unit readiness, building lethality, taking care of people and creating innovative solutions to fast-changing, complex challenges, Lengyel said.

In a profession whose members have sworn an oath indicating our willingness to sacrifice everything up to and including our lives, the mission comes first, Lengyel said. Threats are numerous, including failed nation states, non-state actors, terrorism and transnational organized crime - which means troops must maintain the highest state of readiness at the individual and unit level for no-notice missions.

Readiness and lethality are also priorities emphasized by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

"You've got to be lethal in your military occupational specialty or career field, and you've got to be excellent in your core competency," Command Sgt. Maj. Kepner told troops, emphasizing that excellence in non-combat roles is as important as excellence in combat arms roles, because every piece of the organization affects the effectiveness of the whole.

The National Guard's readiness is high and increasing, Lengyel said. While about 19,000 Citizen-Warriors are serving globally and about 10,000 in the homeland any given day, this is significantly lower than the peak 100,000 overseas and 50,000 responding to Hurricane Katrina during the first decade of the new century. "Though clearly there are exceptions, the preponderance of our force is not over-tasked," Lengyel said.

When Lengyel and Kepner asked troops about the operational tempo, they more frequently heard questions about opportunities to do more deployments than concerns about doing too much.

"We owe you, your families and your employers predictability - the ability to have both a civilian life and a military life," Lengyel told troops. "I don't ever want to put you in a place where you feel you have to make a choice between continuing your military career and your civilian life. We have to enable you to balance the two."

Both leaders emphasized how the unique nature of the National Guard contributes to the Joint Force, primarily through the civilian-acquired skills, diverse life experience and maturity Guard members bring to their military roles, which tends to foster the kind of innovation Lengyel would like to see more of throughout the component.

"Innovation is in our DNA," Lengyel said. "It's who we are: You leave it better than you found it."

Lengyel encouraged innovative thinking, even when it might make us individually uncomfortable, a standard he applies to himself: An F-16 pilot, he nevertheless knows the day may come when technology replaces pilots. "If all you're trying to do is to hold on to what you have, then you're failing," he said. "You aren't growing, and you will be overtaken by change. We can't afford that as individuals or as a force."

The National Guard fights America's wars, secures the homeland and builds enduring partnerships at the local, state or territory, federal and international levels. The three key missions overlap: For example, securing the homeland builds readiness to fight America's wars - and building partnerships increases the National Guard's contributions to both missions.

General Lengyel is the 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau. A member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his responsibilities include coordinating the resourcing, training and equipping of the 448,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard and leading the Bureau, which supports the National Guard in the 50 states, three territories and District of Columbia, and acts as the nexus between federal and state equities.