LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Senior enlisted National Guard leaders gathered here Aug. 7-10 to synchronize on Guard initiatives that impact people and readiness.
Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, the SEA to the chief, National Guard Bureau, hosted the Senior Enlisted Leader Training Forum alongside Command Sgt. Maj. John Raines and Command Chief Master Sgt. Maurice Williams – the top enlisted leaders for the Army and Air Guard, respectively. Senior enlisted leaders from every state, territory and the District of Columbia were present.
There were multiple points for discussion, training, and implementation. These senior noncommissioned officers collectively strategized ways to prevent sexual assault and harassment, stop suicide, improve health and wellness, and increase COVID-19 vaccination rates in the Guard at a time when the military at large is struggling to attract recruits.
Whitehead, the senior-most enlisted Guardsman of a 450,000 member-strong force, said keeping current Guardsmen in uniform is just as important as recruiting new Soldiers and Airmen.
“Our people are our foundation,” Whitehead said. “We can’t allow any of these issues to degrade our readiness.”
He cited the Novavax vaccine – approved under emergency use authorization by the FDA on July 13 – as another option for Guardsmen who have declined previous COVID vaccines. The National Guard’s total force vaccination rate is about 90%.
Whitehead is hopeful that number will continue to increase.
“We will not give up and just discard our Guardsmen,” he said. “We have not done that, and we will not do that. At the same time, we’re implementing guidance from our service secretaries and the secretary of defense.
“The health of our Guardsmen is paramount. We need every single Soldier and Airmen in our formations.”
Whitehead said sexual assault and harassment are other corrosive factors in readiness. New National Guard initiatives are aimed at preventing sexual assault and harassment entirely – also a key Defense Department initiative.
“I realize that it may not be realistic to say we will get down to zero sexual assaults and harassments in the National Guard,” Whitehead said, “but that’s our target and we will continue to work toward that goal and work until we get there.”
The SEL forum was briefed on emerging National Guard sexual assault and harassment prevention measures that will add resources and staffing to target these issues in every state, territory, and D.C.
“I look at the reports that are coming through,” Whitehead said. “I look at the fact that people are trusting the process. Part of creating a strong organizational culture is to make sure your people understand that they can trust us and trust you.”
As most Guardsmen balance careers, family and military service, Whitehead encouraged the SELs to engage with their troops early and often to continue building that trust.
“As National Guard senior noncommissioned officers, you have civilian careers, you have the work that you do while you’re in uniform – caring for our Guardsmen and their families – you work in your communities,” he said. “You do this repeatedly, and you take it seriously.
“Our junior enlisted Guardsmen have to see us taking it seriously.”
Whitehead said individual readiness is the building block to collective readiness. The National Guard must be prepared to deliver on its promise to America to be “Always Ready, Always There,” at home and abroad. He added that he does not expect the Guard’s operational tempo to slow.
Bringing the senior enlisted leaders together from across the country provided valuable dialogue to ensure that promise is kept, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dena Ballowe, the command senior enlisted leader for the Illinois National Guard.
“We were able to come together, listen to one another, exchange ideas and grow,” she said. “With such amazing, diverse and strategic-thinking senior enlisted leaders coming together with positive attitudes and outlooks, we can’t help but succeed.”