Among the many noteworthy events at the 144th General Conference & Exhibition in August were the separate presentations of the association’s highest honor to two senior officials with different positions, but much in common.
Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards received the Harry S. Truman Award. NGAUS bestows the award to senior leaders who have made “sustained contributions of exceptional and far-reaching magnitude to the defense and security of the United States,” according to the official criteria.
The association’s board of directors also considers what impact those contributions have had on National Guard capability and readiness. It usually approves one award a year. This year, it deemed two nominations worthy.
Edwards’ nomination was submitted by Maj. Gen. Keith Waddell, the adjutant general of Louisiana, cited the governor’s two terms on the Council of Governors, a 10-member body that advises the secretaries of defense and homeland security on Guard matters, and his advocacy of cybersecurity.
While Edwards has been commander in chief of the Louisiana Guard since 2016, his contributions to national defense go back much further. Edwards is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (class of 1988). He spent eight years on active duty, culminating in a company command with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Among his fellow company commanders in the battalion was now-Gen. Andrew P. Poppas, another 1988 West Point grad and the new commander of Army Forces Command. Poppas spoke to the conference’s Army Separate Session on Aug. 29 and attended the presentation to Edwards later that day during the Third Business Session.
Edwards reminded those in attendance that the day was the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast. Since then, the levees that failed after the storm have been bolstered. They held up during more recent hurricanes.
“But the fact of the matter is,” he told some of the 3,500 people who attended the conference, “nothing reassures the people of our state and makes them feel confident and secure like the presence of soldiers and airmen of the National Guard. When we have a natural disaster, it is more important than the levees and the pumps and the gates.”
Edwards is only the third governor to receive the Truman Award.
McConville (West Point class of 1981) received his honor during the First Business Session. He is the first serving officer to be so honored since NGAUS presented the first Truman Award to Gen. William C. Westmoreland, then the Army chief staff, in 1969.
Maj. Gen. John C. Harris, the adjutant general of Ohio, nominated McConville, citing his long career and support of the Guard as chief of staff, which began with putting three adjutants general on his transition team when he took over the Army in 2019.
In his remarks, McConville said the Guard is essential to the Army at home and abroad.
“We don’t go anywhere or do anything without the National Guard,” he said. “We can’t do what we do as an Army without the National Guard. Every time we have asked,” he added, “the National Guard has been ‘Always Ready, Always There.’
“What makes you special is not just what you do, but it’s really how you do it, and the great people who have answered the call to serve.”
We don't go anywhere or do anything without the National Guard.
—Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff
The National Guard Educational Foundation, the NGAUS entity that tells all 386 years of the Guard story, also used the conference to present its highest honor, the Brigadier General William W. Spruance Legacy Award, which recognizes contributions, service and devotion to the foundation.
This year’s recipient was retired Tennessee Air Guard Maj. Gen. Jan Young, one of the NGEF’s top individual benefactors.
She told conferees her giving was inspired by retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., a former adjutant general of Tennessee and NGAUS president, who made foundation fundraising a priority during his tenure. He often asks retired senior Guard officers, “Has the Guard been good to you?” It’s his way of getting them to reflect on their careers and consider giving back.
Young received her commission in 1984. “I was a female, biracial, naturalized citizen and a medic,” she recalled. “At that time, there had been no female general officers in the Guard. So, a betting person would tell you that a snowball had a better chance of surviving in Hades than me retiring as a two-star officer from the Guard.”
Yet she did.
“The Guard has been good to me,” she said. “Most of us if we were raised in a faith tradition, we’re told that if you give freely with no expectation of return, you’ll have blessings that return to you tenfold. … I received blessings 100-fold from the Guard.”
The conference also featured its largest trade show in many years, with 343 exhibitors, roughly 80 more than participated last year in Las Vegas, says Jake Jakubek, the NGAUS vice president for business development & general conference.
Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Klemmer, of BAE Systems, the chairman of the NGAUS Corporate Advisory Panel, said an industry presence at the tradeshow every year is “incredibly important.”
“When you walk the aisles here, you get what’s the art of the possible from our industry,” he said.
The conference also had an increasing international flavor. Three state delegations included senior officers from their State Partnership Program partner nations — Illinois (Poland), Massachusetts (Paraguay) and Nevada (Fiji and Tonga).
If we're comfortable [with change], we're probably doing it wrong.
—Gen. CQ Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff
In addition to McConville, conference attendees heard from two other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. CQ Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
Brown said transforming the Air Force to meet future challenges won’t be easy but is necessary to counter America’s increasingly provocative near-peer competitors.
“If we’re comfortable, we’re probably doing it wrong,” he said during the First Business Session. “We must accelerate change to transform from the unit we have today to a unit ready to meet our pacing challenge.”
The greatest security threat America faces, Brown said, is military modernization and the dangers posed by China and Russia. He said the National Guard will be part of the solution.
“The Guard plays a key role in addressing these complex challenges, and air power is vital and in high demand,” Brown said. “I know it. Our Air Guard knows it. And combatant commanders have proven this with their continued ask for more air power.”
“I reflect on the fact that our service was created on a foundation of innovation and forward thinking, and how we must harness that mindset and exploit change to transform from the force we have today to the one needed to meet our pacing challenge,” he said. “We’ve done this before, and I’m confident we can do it again.”
Hokanson said the physical and mental readiness of each Guard soldier and airmen is what enables the Guard to keep its “promise to America.”
“Your health and resilience — both physical and mental — is vital to readiness,” he said. “It’s not just about the miles you run or the ways you manage stress, although both are very important. It’s about being ready to step into your formation and do your job whenever the call comes.”
To that end, he mentioned his legislative priority, one that NGAUS shares: zero-cost medical coverage for every member of the Guard. About 60,000 Guard soldiers and airman have no health insurance, he said.
“This means many do not get the health care they need when they’re not in a duty status,” Hokanson said. “The National Guard is 20% of the joint force, and our nation cannot deter or fight and win our wars without the National Guard. And lost readiness costs more than the price of health care.”
John Goheen is the NGAUS director of communications. He can be reached at [email protected].
Many conference speeches are available on the NGAUS YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/NGAUS1878.
Photos can be seen here.
NGAUS Conference returns to the ‘Biggest Little City in the World’
The NGAUS conference heads back to Nevada next year, but to a very different city than attendees experienced in 2021.
Reno, the setting for the 145th General Conference & Exhibition, Aug. 18-21, 2023, and Las Vegas are both renowned meetings destinations, with great hotels, conference facilities and entertainment.
But the self-described “Biggest Little City in the World” lacks the extravagances of Vegas. In a word, it’s more chill, and that includes the weather.
Reno is in the high desert of the High Eastern Sierra foothills, in the Truckee River valley, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.
Summer temperatures are much more bearable, and one will actually want to be outside rather than hiding from the sun in the heat of the day, like in Las Vegas.
And the National Guard Association of Nevada is planning some events Aug. 18 to take advantage of the outdoors, including a motorcycle ride, a hike of a local mountain and the traditional NGAUS golf tournament.
Another plus: Reno is considered much cheaper than Vegas.
Conference attendees should expect a few changes in the traditional schedule. The NGAUS board has approved the host-state’s plan to hold the States Dinner on Aug. 19 after the First Business Session. The last evening will feature a farewell reception.
Business sessions and the industry exhibition will be held at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, just south of the city. Most attendees will stay at one of three casino hotels — the Eldorado Resort Casino, Circus Circus Resort or Silver Legacy Resort Casino.
NGAUS last gathered in Reno for the conference in 2012. More event information is available here.
—By John Goheen