NATIONAL GUARD magazine
By Retired Maj. Gen. Frank D. Vavala
(read online digital version)
It's often said that the only time people never say anything bad about a person is at their funeral. I can’t yet vouch for the accuracy of that perceived wisdom, but it might also be true of reaching retirement. It has been a humbling experience as I prepare to leave military service to hear again and again what a tremendous fellow I am. (We all know differently.)
While it would be folly for me to take seriously all of those kind words, I appreciate the sentiment.
But as I reach the end of a 50-year career in uniform, I am less inclined to think about my service than about how the National Guard from which I retire is very different from the one in which I enlisted in 1967.
In those days, we trained with hand-me-down equipment from World War II and the Korean War. We were two or three generations behind what the active-component services were using.
But we had a strong sense of camaraderie even back then. Enlistees joined a particular unit often in their hometown and that unit was often the focal point of activity for that community. It was an all-for-one-one-for-all feeling.
Of course, there was another aspect to Guard service at that time. For some citizen-soldiers and airmen, it was a place to avoid the draft. These Guardsmen were often less concerned with duty and service than they were with sidestepping the war in Vietnam.
It was not the Guard’s finest moment. Still, when Guard units were sent to the war, and a few did go, they performed admirably. And the lesson learned, of course, was that the nation should not go to war and leave the Guard on the bench.
Things changed when the draft ended and the all-volunteer military took root. The men and women joining the Guard may have been motivated by the extra income and benefits, but the people I knew also wanted to serve their state and country. The professional military attracted professionals and the Guard benefited.
The military buildup under President Ronald Reagan helped, too. The Guard was not a forgotten partner as money flowed for new equipment, infrastructure and better training for the wave of new enlistees. We were catching up to our active-component brethren in all ways.
That progress was boosted by Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. Although it was not a smooth callup in all phases, the Guard played a significant role in pushing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
Of course, the defining moment in the recent evolution of the Guard was 9/11. It was one of the worst days in the nation’s history, but the National Guard’s response allowed military leaders and the American people to see what a valuable asset they had residing in more than 2,700 communities nationwide.
Sending troops to a combat zone was one of the most difficult things I had to do as adjutant general. Other adjutants general have told me the same thing. But knowing the men and women deploying were well-equipped and well-trained eased the worry somewhat.
Nearly 800 Guardsmen have given their lives in the war against terrorism. That steep price has forever retired the term “weekend warrior.”
The Army Guard and the Air Guard now have the respect of Pentagon leadership. And Americans are aware of the sacrifice their family members and friends and neighbors accept when they go to serve at that armory or base across town.
The evolution of the National Guard during my five decades in its ranks has been a wonder. Witnessing it up close has been an honor and a privilege.
I leave the Guard knowing that it is on the right track. I do value the kind words that have come my way as my career draws to a close, but let me tell the men and women across the Guard with whom I’ve served how much they have meant to me.
And as I have always said, you have all made me “proud to be a Guardsman!”
The author was Delaware adjutant general from 1999 until his retirement last month. He served as NGAUS chairman of the board from 2010 to 2012. A story on what he means to the Delaware National Guard appeared in the June 2016 issue of National Guard.