DJIBOUTI - National Guard members are making critically important contributions to Joint Force operations overseas - and their readiness and morale are exceptionally high, the Guard's most senior general said as he ended a six-day visit with troops today.

"The National Guard is an integral part of the Joint Force, and we play an important role in every aspect of our national security and defense," said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief, National Guard Bureau.

Lengyel and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, the CNGB's senior enlisted advisor, visited hundreds of troops in Kuwait, Djibouti and Qatar. The National Guard's senior leaders were here to thank troops during the Thanksgiving holiday and observe their support to ongoing operations.

"We work alongside our active duty counterparts, and we have to maintain an unprecedented level of readiness," Kepner said. "These Guard soldiers and airmen take that challenge head-on, balancing their military duties, civilian careers and families. My pride in my fellow Guardsmen has never been greater."

One example: The 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team serving in Kuwait. Drawn from soldiers and equipment from North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and West Virginia National Guards, the "Old Hickory" brigade is serving its third deployment since the Sept. 11th attacks.

"Guard units tasked to Central Command are serving side-by-side with active duty soldiers and airmen in operations in theater," Lengyel said. "The National Guard provides operational capabilities and strategic depth to meet Defense Department requirements across the full spectrum of conflict."

The general and the command sergeant major helped serve the Thanksgiving Day feast to Joint Force members in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa, about half of whom are currently drawn from the National Guard.

"I'm here to support our National Guardsmen and women and all of our service members engaged in the warfight during the holidays," Lengyel said.

"It's important we let our troops know we are here to support them, we are proud of them and their families - although they miss them - are proud of their service," Kepner said.

Army Specialists Levi Eslinger, Divin Guintu and John Tubby were eating lunch in a Kuwait chow hall when a four-star member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took an empty seat next to them.

Tubby said he was struck by how General Lengyel engaged the three troops on their level, expressing genuine interest in their perspectives.

"It shows us that he's supporting us at the same time as we're serving the country," Eslinger said.

The three were buoyed by the unexpected opportunity. "I didn't think I'd ever be able to talk with a four-star," Guintu said.

Army Spc. Victoria Sands was working alongside colleagues pulling the engine from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for maintenance in Kuwait when Lengyel and Kepner walked in to visit her unit. Inspired by the general's service as a fighter pilot, Sands opened up with him about her aspiration to become an Apache pilot.

"I so appreciate him coming out here for all of us," she said, after several minutes of one-on-one mentoring and encouragement. "He could be with his family right now, and he came out here to be with us."

Meeting with one small group of troops in Qatar, Lengyel was asked what his favorite part of his work is.

"This," the general said, immediately, looking around at the assembled troops. "Visiting with troops, hearing your stories, and telling your stories."

Even after almost four decades in uniform, Lengyel said he still is struck by the diversity of experience Guard members bring to their duties. Sometimes, civilian careers match military duties. Just as often, a Guard member's civilian career is totally different from their military specialty. Either way, Lengyel said civilian-acquired skills make a unique contribution to the Joint Force.

"High-speed Guard members are usually also high-speed civilians," he said, "and we have to work hard to recruit and keep them."

During his trip, Lengyel met with National Guard members drawn from about 30 states, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands - and from every region in between.

Military police from the Virgin Islands National Guard were experiencing their first day in theater when Lengyel and Kepner visited them in Qatar.

"It's hard to meet a more diverse cross-section of Guard members than we have met during this trip," Lengyel said.

The National Guard fights America's wars, secures the homeland and builds enduring partnerships.

"Right now, about 40,000 Guard members are serving worldwide," Lengyel said. "I wish I could visit with and thank every single one. It's an extraordinary force that has contributed more than 1.1 million individual overseas deployments since 9/11."