A Conversation with Brig. Gen. Roy Robinson (Ret.)

April 2017

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'We Will Carry The Water For The States’

Retired Brig. Gen. Roy Robinson's 33 years in uniform were good preparation for becoming the voice of National Guard officers in the nation’s capital.

The new president of NGAUS had a been-there-done-that military career at the state level, serving in every status available—traditional, federal technician, Active Guard and Reserve, and state employee. He’s responded to domestic disasters and commanded troops in Iraq.

And during the last eight years, he gained additional perspective by running the nation’s largest state Guard association, where he was immersed in personnel issues across an array of units, Army and Air.

Ask him how a law, policy or mobilization authority affects Guard soldiers or airmen in a particular status or unit type and he’ll have the answer.

It’s a depth of knowledge that should serve him and NGAUS well on Capitol Hill.

Robinson sat down with NATIONAL GUARD last month in his new office to talk about his background and his plans for the nation’s oldest military association.

You were born, raised and educated in Mississippi. Except for military schools and a deployment, you also spent your entire adult life there. What is it about this position that prompted you to pull up lifelong stakes and move to Washington, D.C.?

I don’t think there’s another position that I would have been willing to pull up stakes and move to at this stage in my life. This position is unique. It allows me to work on behalf of something that I believe in so strongly—the National Guard and what it means to this country. And I can’t imagine any other position at the national level that I am better suited to fill, given the paths that I’ve taken. In fact, I think the paths I have taken have been great preparation for assuming the duties as the president of NGAUS.

So this was the right job in the right place at the right time for you in your life?


What are your immediate plans and goals for the association’s Washington operations?

I think it’s important for this organization to remember that we are state-centric. We will carry the water for the states because that’s where the mission happens. I look forward to doing that.

Initially, we’ve got to get our arms around membership. Our membership has been in slow decline for several years. Last year, 51 percent of National Guard officers nationwide joined NGAUS. This puts at risk the influence we’ve enjoyed on Capitol Hill for many decades.

We’re doing better with membership than most military- service organizations, but I say this all the time: Our strength is having a 45,000-member association that has addresses in every ZIP code in this country. When we lose the ability to say that, when we lose the ability to say we speak for the majority of officers who wear the uniform or used to wear the uniform, the National Guard will suffer.

We need to grow our membership. It just makes a much more powerful statement when you are working issues—be it on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon or anywhere else—and you can say you have 80 or 85 percent of the National Guard officer corps behind us. That’s where we once were. That’s where we need to get back to.

What changes in how NGAUS operates can members expect to see in the weeks and months ahead?

The biggest thing that I have seen since I have been here is the amazing array of talent on the NGAUS staff. We have staff members, young and old, who have phenomenal skillsets in their areas of concentration. My job, and you’ll continue to hear this through all of the messages that I give, is to make sure that we are leveraging all of those skills and assets we have to further the interests of the states. That’s what we’re about. We want to be driven by the needs and interests of the leadership in the states. We want to work every day for the training and equipment the soldiers and airmen in the states need and the individual benefits they and their families deserve.

You spent the last eight years as the executive director of the National Guard Association of Mississippi, which is the largest state Guard association. How do you think that experience will serve you at NGAUS?

One thing that has surprised me a little is the similarities between state association operations and the national association operations. I think part of that is linked to our history. Most of our state associations are built on the same organizational model as NGAUS. We’re very similar in the way we’re set up, the way we have a board that sets the overall direction of things.

Most of the state associations, like here at the NGAUS headquarters, have business workings, such as insurance sales and investments. They also have to manage human resources. There are just a lot of similarities between what the states look like and what we look like up here. The scale is just a little grander here in D.C. The numbers are a little bit larger, but the basic blocking and tackling in the association business is virtually the same among the state associations and the national association.

The Guard has had a four-star with a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2012. Some might say that this reduces the need for a strong NGAUS presence in the nation’s capital. What is your take?

I think it’s just the opposite. And I think the reason is that the potential and the influence and the effect that having a four-star chief of the National Guard Bureau who concurrently serves as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is yet to be realized. It’s a work in progress, and I think it’s even more important today that this association is involved in the policy that will guide what that means to the Guard and to the active services moving forward.

We need to be a part of all those discussions. We also have to remember that just because we have something now doesn’t mean we are going to have it tomorrow. You have to be constantly involved in the process to retain what’s there and what we have, and to make sure that it’s being implemented in a way that is positive for the soldiers and the airmen out in the units across the country.

How do you intend to work with the National Guard Bureau?

I’ve had the opportunity in the last few weeks to meet some members of the senior staff of the bureau that I didn’t previously have a lot of history with. They have been very, very forthcoming and direct in our discussions. My intent is, No. 1, to get to know them and make sure that we’re aligned most of the time in what we’re trying to get done.

There’s obviously going to be some soldier and airman-specific issues that we’re probably going to be a little more aggressive on than they would be because it’s kind of outside their day-to-day operation. But I’ve been impressed. I’ve been impressed with the way that the relationship is set up between this association and the NGB leadership. I look at it as they’re another ally. First of all, just about all of the senior members are life members of this association, and I think they are a major ally in things we are trying to get done on behalf of the National Guard.

I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary that we always agree on everything, but I think we will agree on just about everything. I’m looking forward to continuing to develop that relationship.

What role do you plan to take in NGAUS efforts on Capitol Hill?

I want to help continue—perhaps even add to—the information-providing relationship we have with the members of the Congress.

And I have a diverse set of experiences to help here. I didn’t plan it this way, but I served in every Guard status you can in a state. I know what it’s like to be a traditional Guardsman, juggling military service and civilian job. I’ve been a state employee. I’ve been a federal technician. I spent time in the Active Guard Reserve program. I’ve commanded troops responding to natural disasters and I’ve commanded troops in combat.

All of this allows me to share with members of Congress, based on personal experience, how legislation and policies affect Guardsmen across the many statuses in our force, when we are on state-active duty and when we mobilize for war. We certainly know that some current laws, especially those that affect benefits, don’t apply evenly across all of our statuses and all mobilization authorities.

You are the first combat veteran to oversee day-to-day operations at NGAUS in more than 20 years. How might this benefit a membership with a growing number of combat veterans?

Most of our members have deployed once, twice. Some of them three, four, five or more times. There is a certain knowledge you gain only by mobilizing and going to war. It’s also important to understand the rigors that the individual soldier and airman go through. I think I can translate that experience into words so that Congress understands how important it is to prepare for the next mobilization.

We know we’re going to have mobilizations every year for the foreseeable future, and we also know that there will come a time when we have a full mobilization. So we have to constantly be using those experiences and knowledge in making sure that we do everything that we need to do to prepare for those future mobilizations for our soldiers and airmen.

What lessons learned from your personal combat experiences do you bring to the NGAUS staff?

There has been an assumption among some decision-makers that we can fix equipment and other aspects of readiness after we mobilize, and I think that has proven to be a less than valid assumption.

We have to figure out ways to make sure that we equip units with the most technologically advanced, safest, hardened equipment that we can and we have to adjust to the threat based on what we know before we deploy troops.

The thing that rings truest with me is, it’s that we knew for years that IEDs were the greatest threat to the lives of our soldiers and airmen. Anyone who served in Afghanistan or Iraq would agree. You always have the threat of small-arms fire, artillery, rockets, direct fire, but the overwhelming threat has been the improvised-explosive device.

But despite that knowledge and a lot of effort, it took a long time to get IED-resistant rolling stock and better IED-detection equipment to the fight. And even then, we had soldiers who had to learn how to use that equipment and had to do so while they were in the fight. I don’t believe you can send equipment and prepare people after the fact. And we’ve had to do that because of the system we have been under.

It’s just critically important that Guard units are part of the fielding plan for new equipment, that they are part of any modernization efforts going on and that they receive all specialty equipment available to deal with the specific threats of a specific theater. We have to make sure that all of this is done before they step off the airplane in a foreign country.

And you have personally seen the consequences of that not happening.

Absolutely. In a way that is not reversible, that is very, very difficult on the units and the families of soldiers who pay the price. And my experience was at a time when every senior leader I knew was trying to do everything they could do to get the right equipment to the right place. They were very smart people. They were working very hard.

But the cold, hard truth is, it didn’t get done. And it cost us some lives. I just want to make sure I’m clear that there are some assumptions out there that you can kind of do things on the fly, and I think that is absolutely false. And we need to be focused on ensuring that all those things are done prior to the day soldiers step off the airplane.

The same goes for the Air Guard. We need to be flying the best this nation has in its combat-aircraft inventory.

Most observers believe defense spending will increase in the years ahead. Might this make the association’s job easier?

I hope so. I’m very optimistic. There is absolutely no way to predict how the spending will come. There are so many different scenarios that I’ve heard just in the last 30 days. Even the scenarios by some very smart people who have done this for a long time in a lot of different arenas are evolving week to week. I personally think, and I’m optimistic, that there will be more resources for defense going forward. I personally don’t think the ramp will be as steep as some hope. I think it’s going to be gradual, but I do think the next three to five years are going to be more positive on the budget side for the military establishment as a whole than the last five years.

How can state Guard associations and individual members help NGAUS achieve its legislative objectives?

I go back to membership. If a state association wants to show that it’s really interested in the difference that NGAUS can make on the Hill and the things that NGAUS can do for their individual soldiers and airmen, the way to do that is through membership. They talk to their members about what NGAUS does. They talk to their members about things going on on Capitol Hill. There are still a lot of young soldiers and airmen out there that honestly don’t have a real good bead on what NGAUS is doing every day, and I think our leadership in the states needs to take that on as a specific priority. They need to make sure that everybody understands that the states and NGAUS are in this together, that we’re partners and we need the support of the states to do what needs to be done for the Guard on Capitol Hill.

Will you be a presence out in the states?

I am actually looking forward to visiting as many states as I can. I’ve already had the opportunity to attend several state conferences. I really believe that because of my background and spending so much of my career in an individual state, I can connect with the leadership in the states out there that are trying every day to move mountains and get things done. I’ve walked in their shoes. And I look forward to getting out there and hearing from them and making sure that we’re listening and we’re doing what they see needs to be done. I believe that’s the way to do it—to be a presence out there.