NORTH LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS (NGB)-As the Army has transformed itself into a more relevant and capable force for the 21st century, the Army National Guard has played an important role, the chief of staff of the Army told an audience Saturday at the Army Guard's Senior Leadership Conference here at the Professional Education Center on Camp Joseph T. Robinson.

"As an Army, we have been transforming ourselves away from the Cold War force that we were before Sept. 11. to a force more relevant and capable for 21st century warfare," said General George Casey Jr. "The Guard has been a key part of that transformation and they have been extremely versatile."

Casey was the featured speaker at the annual conference, which allows those in command and senior leadership positions of brigade-level units and higher to discuss items and issues affecting the Army Guard.

"The Guard is such an important part of our total force and I really hate to pass up the opportunity to tell them the contribution they're making to this country," said Casey.

He noted how the Guard has changed from a strategic reserve to an operation force. "It's an amazing statistic but (more than) 40 percent of the Army Guard are combat veterans," he said. "That's a fundamentally different Guard than just a few years ago." The change to an operational force and the rise in the number of those who have deployed mean that many other things have changed as well, including support of families.

"We have done an awful lot as an Army to support the families of our Soldiers, to include families of Soldiers in the Guard," Casey said. "The challenges of families and Soldier support in the dispersed nature of the Guard and Reserve all over the country in small garrisons has made our challenges harder."

Because many Guard and Reserve units are located so far away from large military installations, many support issues facing Soldiers and their families had to be addressed.

"I've asked (the senior leaders of the Guard) how we were doing and they seemed actually quite pleased," said Casey.

Though the conference was focused on the senior leadership of the Army Guard, Casey also touched on the backbone of the Army, the NCO.

"We, in the Army, have designated this year as the year of the noncommissioned officer," said Casey, who added that the last time that designation was made was in 1989 after a roughly two-decade period of rebuilding the NCO corps after the Vietnam War.

Casey said there are parallels between now and then. "We are at another seminal point with respect to our noncommissioned officer corps. But this time, it's not a rebuilding effort. As the secretary (of the Army) and I looked around the Army it was clear to us that the noncommissioned officer is the glue that is holding this Army together at a critical time and a lot accomplish the near-impossible everyday."

The role of the NCO is noted by others as well. "When I travel around the world and meet with foreign officers, the one thing they all have in common is they all say we want a noncommissioned officer corps like yours," said Casey. "So, I think it's important that the country knows what an asset they have in the noncommissioned officers of the United States Army, and frankly the other services as well."

The Year of the NCO has been highlighted by a Guard Soldier. "It's a very important program," said Casey. "And interestingly enough, the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year is a staff sergeant, who happens to be a sergeant in the Montana Army National Guard."

"Our country couldn't do what it's doing today without the support of our Citizen-Soldiers," said Casey.