HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Expressing her amazement at the "the outpouring of support" the Tennessee Valley region gives its Armed Forces, the state's highest ranking National Guard officer told a June 27 luncheon group of more than 600 business, community and military leaders that such support is impressive, but not surprising in a state known for its patriotic citizens.

"This is a wonderful week-long celebration," said Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon, the adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard, as she spoke at the Armed Forces Celebration Week Salute Luncheon at the Von Braun Center's North Hall, the premier event of an annual celebration hosted by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

"This is a wonderful time to focus on the birth of the nation and those who have sacrificed to defend our freedom, principals and way of life. We need to continue to be diligent and continue to honor our troops."

That patriotism comes through in the high level of recruiting numbers in Alabama.

"Through the years we have been able to maintain a high level of recruitment for the military, probably more so than other states similar to us ... That tells you what a great place Alabama is and how patriotic our citizens are," Gordon said. "We have a long tradition of service and support to our national defense."

Alabama has the fifth largest population of National Guard Soldiers in the nation, despite having only the 23rd largest statewide population. It is home to 12,000 Army and Air National Guard Soldiers.

"We are uniquely blessed in this state because we have such a strong military presence and diversity," Gordon said.

The state's strong support of the military is evident across the state, Gordon said, through monuments such as the World War I statue unveiled last year to honor the 167th Infantry in Montgomery. It's evident in the Army Materiel Command and other tenants at Redstone Arsenal, the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center and search and rescue operations in Mobile, the Anniston Army Depot and Fort McClellan National Guard Training Center in Anniston, Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker and Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. In all, there are more than 50,000 service members and civilians who work for the Department of Defense in Alabama.

Additional growth of military operations in Alabama includes the Air Force choosing Dannelly Field in Montgomery - the home of the 187th Fighter Wing Tuskegee Airmen -- for one of two Air National Guard F-35A bases, and the Guard's choice of Decatur as the home of one of its seven cyber-protection units, which was stood up in February 2017 and will deploy in 2019 after 18 months of training.

"The economic impact is enormous," Gordon said, adding that the Alabama National Guard alone has more than a $2.3 billion budget.

Even so, Gordon spends a lot of her time educating Alabama citizens on the differences between the military's active component and the Army and Air National Guard.

"We're the only service component that has a dual mission," she said, explaining that Guard Soldiers are under U.S. Code Title 10 status (with a federal mission to fight and win the nation's wars) and Title 32 status (with responsibility for homeland defense within the state of Alabama).

Under Title 32, "we're the ones who answer the call in times of natural disasters and manmade disasters," Gordon said. "We're the ones who come out in hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, ice storms. We are under the command of the Governor of Alabama. She is my commander in chief ... and that makes us very unique and very valuable to the state because we serve the citizens of Alabama. We're there to help our neighbors when the need arises. We're very proud of that. The National Guard has a saying -- 'Always ready, always there and you can always count on us.'"

Gordon spoke of the National Guard's working relationships with other state and federal organizations. The Guard's information technology office is working with the State of Alabama to protect the computer network during statewide elections. A joint training program between the Air Force, Army and Navy Reserve units and the Air Force provided low income families in two south Alabama counties with medical, dental, optometry and other public health services.

"This training is an example of where the military and community benefit. It's a symbiotic relationship and a prime example of that wonderful relationship between military and community," Gordon said.

The shrinking pool of eligible candidates for military service is a challenge for National Guard recruiting, she said. Obesity, mental health disorders, criminal backgrounds and lack of education are all disqualifiers for military service. In addition, low unemployment rates make it more difficult to recruit, she said.

"The Soldiers and Airmen who do join us, when I see them, I am excited about our future," Gordon said. "They are great service members. Very bright, enthusiastic, energetic and the solutions that come from their minds are remarkable. They bring a diversity of thought and spirit ... We need people on our staffs and in our formations who will think differently ... We need to embrace and celebrate these differences, and I believe we can overcome the challenges that face us."

In closing, Gordon made the same three pledges to the luncheon audience that she made to Governor Kay Ivey when she took command of the Alabama National Guard. They are: a promise to lead the organization with integrity, a commitment to true equal opportunity and to promote those with the knowledge, skill sets and potential to succeed at the next level; and a promise to create an environment where personal and professional growth and mentoring are encouraged.

The Guard "has not only the best warriors, but also the best citizens, employees and leaders in our communities," Gordon said. "We want to ensure we have a world class force ... We've come a long way in the military with attitudes. We are becoming more inclusive."
As the first female general in the Alabama National Guard and its first female adjutant general, Gordon represents the Guard's inclusivity and diversity.

"But, I don't see myself as a trailblazer or someone who is breaking the glass ceiling," she said. "I see myself as someone who has worked hard in every job I was given, and someone who had the military and civilian education so that I was ready when opportunities presented themselves ... When people say I am a female Soldier, I say 'No, I am a Soldier who just happens to be a female.'"