(Excerpted from NGA Florida Conference speech, 27 Jul 2013)
This time last year we had just finished our response efforts for Tropical Storm Debby and were weeks away from the Republican National Convention. We were coordinating final details with the city of Tampa, still facing uncertainty with funding our mission, and keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t have to resort to Plan B….a simultaneous hurricane response. As you know, with the support of our Governor, city of Tampa and NGB, we were able to fund our mission….but still had to execute Plan B anyway with Hurricane Isaac. As always..…we had planned… and we were prepared. We safely and successfully executed all missions and, once again, demonstrated why the Florida National Guard leads the nation in defense support to civil authorities.
We’ve had a fast and remarkable year. We moved directly from the RNC to celebrating the 447th anniversary of “The First Muster,” proudly hosted the retirement of our own Florida Guardsman, General Craig McKinley, and farewelled General Joe Balskus at his change of command with General Eifert. We provided support to Hurricane Sandy in the northeast, and we had a few victories in saving missions eliminated in FY13 president’s budget. Though scheduled for elimination, our 114th Range Operations Squadron and 48th Civil Support Team were saved from the “chopping block,” and in fact, the 114th will be re-missioned as an Offensive Space Control unit in 2015. And, just last week, the House passed legislation to reinstate the Army National Guard’s C-23 Sherpa aircraft back to the states.
As we began planning for the challenges of Sequestration, we continued to support operations across the nation and around the globe. We provided security for the presidential inauguration, rotated over 200 Florida Guardsmen to D.C. to protect the skies over the National Capitol Region, deployed and re-deployed several units overseas, and remained ready to safeguard our communities at home.
In May, we completed the most complex domestic response exercise ever conducted – Vigilant Guard – partnering with the NORTHCOM, NGB, other states, services, the interagency, and federal, state and local responders. We tested our planning and readiness to respond to back-to-back hurricanes with 3 simultaneous CBRN events. At the NORTHCOM AAR several weeks later, we discovered that every one of the Florida National Guard recommendations had become action items – to include pre-designation of dual status commanders and development of broad mission assignments to give us greater flexibility to conduct DSCA operations. In the end, NORTHCOM characterized the Florida National Guard as “the gold standard for operations providing defense support to civilian authorities.”
A little over 2 weeks ago, we deployed the 100th Florida National Guard unit since 9/11. The 2-111th Airfield Operations Battalion left with almost 60 Soldiers after a ceremony that caused us all to reflect upon what we have done since 9/11 and where we are going in the future….
First…a few minutes ago you saw a brief clip of a reenlistment. That was SGT Gerald Jones and SGT Matt Evans of the 930th Digital Liaison Detachment reenlisting on a hillside in Afghanistan in November 2012. That image defines us – and speaks volumes of the character and moral commitment of our Florida Guard members who have selflessly sacrificed for the nation. We owe it to ourselves and our nation to continue to retain the “SGT Joneses and SGT Evans” of our force – and so far we have done well. Our retention rate is among the highest in the nation….our Army National Guard is ranked 9th with 102% retention, and our Air Guard has averaged nearly 95% retention over the last 3 quarters. Both services have exceeded 100% for accessions, and our Army team is 2nd in the country with 119%. We must sustain this momentum.
Behind these retention statistics are many enablers, the most important of which is our families. You’ve heard the adage, “we recruit Soldiers, but we retain Families.” If you haven’t done so lately, I encourage you to visit our Family Programs Facebook page to read about the dozens of ongoing activities in place to support our Guard Families. Job fairs, kids’ adventure camps, couples retreats, and quick access to counseling and education programs…all of these and more for the sole purpose of taking care of Families. I’m pleased to say that every one of our family events fills up during the first 2 to 3 days of registration…and the feedback is outstanding. We must sustain the momentum we’ve achieved in taking care of our Families.
Another significant enabler for our retention efforts is the tremendous progress we’ve made with employment of our men and women. We’ve gone from 17% unemployment 18 months ago to less than 5% today. This dramatic turnaround is a result of intense work by our Florida Guard Family Career Connection and ESGR, support from our Governor and state legislature, enhanced partnerships with employers, and dedicated hands-on support at our units. We have a system in place now that helps us accurately capture information on each of our Soldiers and Airmen, and a mechanism to put them in contact with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and other resources to connect them to employers. We must sustain this momentum.
Second, despite the significant challenges we face in the future with sequestration and furlough, our readiness today to respond to the needs of our state and nation remains high. Operationalized through modernized equipment fielding, increased training and continued deployments totaling over 17,000 since 9-11, the Florida National Guard remains ready.
There is no doubt that debt, deficit, continuing resolutions and sequestration will continue to have a negative impact on our force, but let me remind you of a time, exactly 23 years ago next week, when we rapidly answered the nation’s call, and our readiness was a mere fraction of what it is today. Many in this room remember when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990. Within mere hours, the 125th Fighter Wing was tasked unplanned to deploy to Howard AFB, Panama to replace an active component squadron with special capabilities needed in Desert Storm. We were there less than a week after notification. Within two months, the Florida National Guard’s 743rd and 325th Maintenance Companies were deployed. Many Florida Guard units that followed were mobilized and deployed in less than 10 days. When interviewed 3 years ago on the 20th anniversary deploying his unit, the 705th MP Company, LTC Don Mason said, “…everyone was excited. Most of us had joined during the Cold War, but that was going away. We thought, ‘We’ve been training for all these years and we finally get to go off and do something.’ We were glad to do our part.” (pause to separate quote) Though faced with great uncertainty – after all, most of our Guard force had not served overseas since Vietnam – we met all challenges and we transitioned our National Guard to an operational force. I believe this was, in most part, due to strong leadership and a sense of pride that has transcended generations of Guardsmen. We are, after all the enduring force of our nation.
Now…it’s in times like these when true leadership rises to the top. I can’t help but believe that any Soldier or Airman who joined the military after 9-11 did so with full knowledge of the likelihood of deployment. I also believe that each of these Soldiers and Airmen possessed an unbridled commitment to protect their families and future generations….and secure our American way of life. We must sustain and grow this spirit because our readiness depends upon it. We must continue to inspire, and reward innovation. I’ve watched over the past several months as ingenuity has blossomed to find ways to sustain readiness during the furlough. Our 779th Engineer Battalion recently used its annual training to complete a ground-leveling project in Orlando for the 164th ADA, garnering over $300,000 in savings. This is just one example . . . one though that we must encourage all to emulate.
This is not an easy business, but we’ve worked too hard over the past 12 years to allow our unprecedented readiness to erode. We must sustain this momentum.
Finally, the Florida National Guard is well-postured to help pave the way in higher technology defense systems. You saw Florida Guardsman, Major Spohn pre-flighting an F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base. He was the first Guardsman to qualify in this fifth generation fighter…one of many proud “firsts” for the Florida National Guard. Though the F-35 is experiencing limited production delays because of budget restraints, it is still moving ahead – and we remain one of the front-runners for F-35 basing. We take every opportunity to demonstrate our capabilities to home-base this state-of-the-art system, and have the full support of our community and state to make it happen. We must sustain these efforts.
As the debate continues over the defense budget, the costs of AC versus RC, and priorities for modernization, force structure and training, I’ll remind you of the unique value that we bring to our nation….and that is our unbreakable bonds to our communities and our citizens. There’s a growing recognition that the military’s connection to everyday Americans is waning, but that is where our influence is unparalleled. Just 10 days ago at a Security Form in Colorado, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Welsh, acknowledged this when he said, “…we can never be a strong Air Force without a strong reserve component…” and that the “…places we stay most connected are areas around our Guard and Reserve units, because they are civilian Airmen who come to work….live in the community… and stay closely connected….”
We live in every county of our state, represent every culture and race, but are uniquely unified by a common commitment to the safety and security of our state and nation. We must sustain our momentum!
Well, how will we sustain it?
First, we will unify into one voice that carries our proven message. That is why we are here today at this conference and not across town playing with Mickey Mouse. We have seen success in getting a four-star Chief of the NGB and getting that four-star on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We know how to do this and we know how to leverage the clout of this organization and any others who take up our cause.
Second, we will communicate to our peers and encourage them to join our cause. Complacency and inaction during this time of crisis will result in the National Guard shrinking, going back to being a strategic reserve, and no longer being that organization of opportunity that you and I signed up for.
And thirdly, we will remain committed to do what is best for this nation. A Gathering Storm is approaching and this campaign must…must have all hands on deck for the fight. Make no mistake, the power of this association is recognized, but any weaknesses will be exploited.
Emmett R. Titshaw Jr.
The Adjutant General of Florida