The chief of the National Guard Bureau, or CNGB, stood under canvas, a couple of hundred Air National Guard, active-duty and Reserve Service members in folding chairs before him, industrial fans making little impact on the 116-degree Kuwait heat.
But the Airmen’s chatter, the fans, and even the heat couldn’t compete with the general’s focus on the busy A-10 mechanic.
“He’s doing a mission on that jet to get it ready to go to combat,” Grass said. “He just did something that will have a strategic effect on the battlefield. He’s having a strategic effect, for the world, right there.”
The moment symbolized everything Grass concluded from a nine-day, six-nation overseas trip, which ended Saturday.
“The Guard is accessible. We’re operational. We’re part of the Total Force. And it is the finest Guard I’ve seen in the 45 years I have served. They can take on any mission, and just fall right in. It is exactly what we need right now for the nation as our military gets smaller: we need a strong National Guard,” Grass said.
Visits to Belgium, Germany, Egypt, Djibouti, Israel and Kuwait saw the CNGB and his senior enlisted advisor, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush, meet with U.S. combatant commanders and ambassadors, and with foreign cabinet secretaries, defense chiefs and mayors witness the signing of an international partnership, take notes on how other countries respond to natural and man-made disasters, and observe and talk with deployed National Guard members.
“It’s necessary for us to see who we represent,” Brush said. “We’re in a dangerous job. I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care what base you may be stationed at, we’re in a dangerous job. It’s hugely important for me, from an enlisted perspective, because our Soldiers and Airmen are putting their lives on the line every single day. Responding to a flood or a forest fire is dangerous. Supporting overseas contingencies is dangerous.”
“We are being used correctly,” Brush said. “We are at the tip of the spear. We are focused; and we do a pretty good job of taking care of each other.”
Experts counsel leaders to get out from behind their desks, and walk the corridors slowly, to stay connected to their organizations. The National Guard’s corridors start on Main Street America, in more than 3,000 communities the 378-year-old organization calls home.
The corridors of the National Guard’s areas of responsibility wind through partnerships with numerous civilian agencies to governors’ offices, the commanders-in-chief in the states and territories. With the governors’ consent, the corridors continue to the federal government, the Pentagon, the White House, and dozens of countries overseas.
Because the National Guard’s corridors are global, its leadership crosses the globe to walk them, connecting with Guard, the command’s Minutemen support.
“I need to be out front,” Grass said. “I need to be where the troops are. We ask them to do so much. I need to see them, thank them, and ask them to thank their Families and employers for their sacrifices.
“I need to hear from the customer – the commands they work for. Things like, ‘I don’t see components. I just see a Soldier. I just see an Airman. And I can’t tell you they’re Guard.’ That tells me right there we’re successful.
“And I need to hear from the Soldiers and Airmen. Not just to hear from them, but to sense, because after a while as a leader you can sense morale. You can tell when something’s not quite right.
“My sensing on this trip was our morale is extremely high, and they’re working in difficult environments and doing very well – and enjoying it. That’s why they joined. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, part of the security of the United States.”
In Belgium, Grass stopped at Château Gendebien, in Mons, to meet with Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove, supreme allied commander of Europe and commander of U.S. European Command.
“It was a great opportunity to get his vision, especially with everything going on in Europe, so we can take that information, working with the services, and not only get him the forces he needs, but also ensure they’re ready to meet the demands he has when they arrive,” Grass said. “To get his personal guidance for that is phenomenal: It says a whole lot about how he values our partnership.”
Relationships – or partnerships – ran through the CNGB’s travel itinerary as though they were its lifeblood. Every stop involved partnerships: between the National Guard and the commands it supports; between it, and the active-duty components with the State Department and ambassadors with foreign armed forces and defense chiefs.
Joint Multinational Readiness Center-Hohenfels in Germany, was just one example. Here, Citizen-Soldiers, from Puerto Rico and Michigan, were acting as opposing forces, or OPFORS, to active-duty Service members undertaking exercises. Michigan had embedded Service members, from Latvia, with which the state is paired in the National Guard State Partnership Program.
“We’re getting back to where we were years ago in the number of deployments to Europe in support of U.S. Army Europe, at a time the numbers of assigned forces are way down from what they were then,” Grass said. “It’s a great recruiting and retention tool: We’re growing leaders at some of the lowest levels who understand decisive action operations.”
Meanwhile, also at JMRC-Hohenfels, citizen-Airmen from a Pennsylvania Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer, or Red Horse, unit were rebuilding a short takeoff and landing airstrip after several years of deterioration, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. The runway will be used by all branches of the Armed Forces and by U.S. allies.
“Not only are we improving their skills, we’re leaving a product for our customer,” Grass said.
Brush, the CNGB’s senior enlisted advisor, was at the general’s side, from takeoff at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, to return. He sat with Grass on all flights. He joined every meeting. He stood beside the general in front of every group of troops.
“He’s my right hand,” Grass said. “It’s very important for those young enlisted Soldiers and Airmen to see Chief Brush, as their senior enlisted representative, right there with me, as their chief. It’s a team effort, and it goes all the way down to the squad.
“He needs to hear what I’m hearing, because he has to assess it from the manpower, from the people side of this thing, the human side, and send me a signal when something isn’t going to work.
“On the international side, we see so many opportunities to help build an enlisted corps in these countries. They see me and him working together, accomplishing missions. They begin to think, ‘This works for the U.S. How does it work?’ ”
Some National Guard State Partnership Program, or bilateral partners, have transformed their militaries to embrace the noncommissioned officer corps, or NCO, concept modeled by the United States.
“Some countries don’t understand the NCO corps,” Brush said. “It’s leadership at the lowest level. It’s taking those tasks we can do with our greater responsibility and pushing them to the lowest level. You hire good people. You give them great parameters within which to work – and then you get out of the way, and you watch magic happen.”
On the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, where Texas and other National Guard troops support the Multinational Force and Observers, or MFO, which oversees the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sealed with the 1978 Camp David Accords, Brush had his moment like the one the CNGB had watching the Airman work on the A-10.
During a series of visits via MFO UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to observation posts throughout the Sinai, the group stopped atop a desert island rock in the Red Sea, where the only human activity is an MFO observation post.
Troops rotate onto the island for 30-day missions, during which they are self-supporting and self-sustaining. The highest-ranking troop for each rotation is a NCO, a staff sergeant.
“I’m not talking about just a duty schedule, or he has to support their professional development,” Brush said. “He has to feed them. He has to water them. He has to rest them. He has to take care of the facility. Making sure they have the right equipment for the mission set. Double checking and triple checking. For 30 days. With no break, no relief, no ‘off-duty.’ And they still have to meet physical standards.
“And the most amazing thing to me? The guy wasn’t struggling to do it – he was flourishing. He was excelling. He knew the mission inside and out. And each and every team member knew the mission set.”
“It continues to impress me how we take our young men and women from the Guard, we give them the mission, and our men and women step up to the challenge,” Grass said. “When you go to an outpost and you see a young E6 staff sergeant out there with eight or 10 Soldiers, they’re doing the observation mission, they’re reporting by the standards set by the treaty – it’s just outstanding to see a young E6 do that, and you can almost see them grow. They’re growing in their ability to lead – and we’ll be investing in them for the long term.”
In Djibouti, East Africa, Grass and Brush witnessed Kentucky’s adjutant general, Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini, sign a National Guard state partnership program, or SPP, agreement between Kentucky and Djibouti, represented by its chief of defense, Gen. Zakaria Cheik Ibrahim. Djibouti is the 76th National Guard SPP partner nation.
The two also visited Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.
“The work that has occurred there at the base that takes care of the Horn of Africa and East Africa for the United States and supports and works so well with the countries of the region has been remarkable,” Grass said. “The Djiboutian government has just done so much for us there, so that led to the opportunity to create this state partnership.”
The partnership was one of several initiatives President Barack Obama undertook after meetings with President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of Djibouti last year.
“It’s a great opportunity to engage with Djibouti, and we have a really high regard for the relationship,” Grass said.
SPP relationships are a win for both partners. In Djibouti’s case, both militaries will work together.
“And then we’re going to look at responding to disasters in the homeland,” Grass said. “One of the things the Djiboutian government is concerned about is responding to an earthquake. Kentucky is also planning to respond to the New Madrid Seismic Zone. So there’s a great start point to get some synergy on responding to the needs of our citizens.”
The CNGB said he is looking forward to see how this newest partnership unfolds. “Usually these partnerships will start out military-to-military, but there will be a military-to-civilian element and maybe even someday a civilian-to-civilian that will grow out of that.
“When we take on a partnership, it’s not just the National Guard: You’re bringing state leaders, the communities, academia. The military facilitates that, but you bring a state behind this when you bring the Guard in.”
“We made history today,” Brush said. “And we’ve done it 74 other times, pairing the National Guard in the states with the USA’s foreign partners. It’s historic.”
The CNGB and his senior enlisted advisor next stopped in Israel to observe the country’s annual national-level disaster response exercise, Turning Point. The National Guard has a bilateral relationship with Israel’s Home Front Command.
In Haifa, Grass and Brush met with Mayor Yona Yahav.
“He is a leader when it comes to resilience and preparing for disasters,” Grass said. “His message starts with ‘We’ve got to take care of our people, we can’t rely on outsiders to come and assist.’ He sets that mindset across the staff and across the population, and he takes a personal responsibility that his job is to provide for those people, it’s nobody else’s, he’s got to make it happen. He is a leader among mayors around the world in responding to a crisis in a city.”
At a mass casualty exercise in the Port of Haifa, Grass observed layers of response, beginning with those immediately at the scene, through civilian emergency management agencies, to the Home Front Command, or HFC, Israel’s equivalent of the National Guard.
Those types of engagements ensured the trip yielded insights for the CNGB in each of the three priorities in his mission triad for the National Guard: Fight America’s wars, guard the homeland, build partnerships.
At the HFC’s headquarters in Ramla, Grass sat in on HFC commander, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick’s decision-making meetings and daily update briefs.
“I walk away with a better understanding of how they prepare to respond, and I can take lessons learned and use those back home and share them with the adjutants general and with our staff.
“And we’re learning. There’s a piece of this we’re really interested in right now – the human domain during crisis. It deals with how people are going to react. What are their needs? How do you take care of those needs? How can you make sure you can communicate the messages you have, and what you’re doing to help them so they know help is there? How do you build the resilience in the population to know what to do during crisis?”
His time with Strick also highlighted another reason why it’s important to the CNGB and his senior enlisted advisor to get out into the field.
“It’s important to have the one-on-one time, with U.S. leadership, coalition leadership, Department of State and foreign nations,” Grass said. “It’s critical. Not only do you hear it, but you see it. You see the emotion, the priorities, the emphasis you don’t get from an email.
“The Pentagon is not going to tell me everything I need to know. It’s a great place to work, and it’s a place to work hard to get the resources for the men and women out there, and I need to be there and tell the National Guard’s story, but I also need to be out talking with troops, talking with the Air and Army Guard, to use that sensing to carry that message back – and to figure out where we need to go. If you don’t go out to the field and see what’s going on, you will lose touch with reality.”
Kuwait was the penultimate stop, where Grass saw Guard members from Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska and 20 other states.
“I continue to always be impressed by the men and women of the National Guard and how they integrate. You see ‘U.S. Army,’ ‘U.S. Air Force,’ ‘U.S. Marines,’ ‘U.S. Navy’ on the uniform and you don’t know any different whether they’re active, Guard or reserve, unless they tell you,” Grass said.
“To see the Theater Aviation Brigade out of Mississippi – Army National Guard – with active, Guard and reserve assigned to them, to see them work there was truly tremendous. And our morale – getting an opportunity to leave their civilian jobs and to go do the nation’s work, supporting a very critical operation is a huge morale booster in itself.
“The overall message from every Town Hall I had was they want to be a part of the Army and the Air Force when it comes to overseas missions. They like predictability – and they like to deploy.”
Brush said he doesn’t have to ask commanders anymore how the Guard members in their ranks are performing. “They come to me and tell me, ‘Your men and women are doing great things. Thanks for sending them over. I’m impressed by the professionalism. They’re a tight-knit group.’ … All the things you could only beg for out of an NCO corps these guys are doing naturally. I talk about perseverance, passion and pride with our troops; I saw all three in spades throughout our visits.”
Grass and Brush ended their trip with a return to Germany, where they met with National Guard members who support U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command headquarters.
The visit included a one-on-one brief from an E8 master sergeant to the CNGB on Ebola and other medical issues, unfiltered, with no one else present, highlighting again the unique role of the U.S. NCO corps.
“It never ceases to amaze me, even after decades in the National Guard, just how much our Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen are doing every day, at home and overseas – how much they are contributing to our nation and our partners, and the sacrifices their families and their employers willingly make to allow that to happen,” Grass said. “I wish every American fully understood the extent of what our National Guard does for our states, territories and nation, because it is truly inspiring and impressive to see.”