RENO, Nevada — The Army's new senior officer made clear from the start of his presentation at the 145th General Conference & Exhibition in the high desert of Reno, Nevada, in August that he didn’t want his first NGAUS conference experience to be his last.
In his acknowledgements at the Second Business/Professional Development Session, Gen. Randy A. George said he had just learned from Lt. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, the Army National Guard director, that Hospitality Night was that evening, and it was the conference’s “most fun” event.
For those who have never attended a NGAUS conference, this is the evening state and territory Guard associations open their hospitality suites to all comers, typically with special food and drink. Attendees often visit several suites over the course of the night. Unfortunately, the conference was George’s third stop of a multiday excursion that included Fort Bliss, Texas, and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and he needed to get back to Washington, D.C., to prepare for another trip the following week.
“Next year,” he told the audience, “I’m staying for Hospitality Night.”
George will likely get that chance. NGAUS leaders prioritize having a senior official from the Army and the Air Force speak to the conference and take attendee questions. It fosters dialogue and professional development. The Army’s senior officer has accepted an association invitation to speak at the conference for nine consecutive years; twice the chief of staff couldn’t make it due to unforeseen events, but each time, they sent their vice.
In August, George held both jobs. He had been the vice since August 2022. He was also President Joe Biden’s nominee for the top spot, but all Senate confirmations, at the time, were on hold. The 1988 West Point grad became acting chief when Gen. James C. McConville, the 40th Army chief, retired Aug. 4.
“The Army Guard is nearly 40% of our operational force,” George told NGAUS attendees. “We don’t go anywhere with only 60% of our team. We’re going to need everybody. I’m used to that because that’s what I’ve seen over the last 20 years.”
He outlined his four focus areas: warfighting, delivering ready combat formations, undergoing continuous transformation and strengthening the profession of arms.
“If there’s something you’re doing that’s not contributing to you being more lethal and cohesive, then we’ve got to take a hard look at if we should be doing it,” George said. “What we want are trained, fit, disciplined, cohesive and lethal teams. We are here to fight; that’s why we have a U.S. Army.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was his service’s keynote speaker. This was also his first NGAUS conference. He spent much of his prepared presentation during the First Business/Professional Development Session explaining why China is the “pacing challenge” in the National Defense Strategy.
Kendall, who has more than 50 years of defense experience in private industry, government and the military, said the Chinese are pursuing local and global ambitions with a system adverse to the existing international rules-based order. They have also been “investing aggressively” for more than a decade to defeat the U.S. military’s ability to project power in the western Pacific while also “greatly expanding” their nuclear arsenal.
“In my mind,” he said, China is “a more significant competitor, by far, than even the Soviet Union was.”
Kendall also took questions. Recapitalizing the Air Guard’s aging fighter fleet and establishing a Space Guard under the Space Force were top of mind.
The Air Guard has 25 fighter units, many of which fly legacy aircraft the Air Force plans to retire in the years ahead. Yet the service hasn’t identified a follow-on fighter mission for all 25 units, which is the source of considerable angst across the Guard fighter community.
Kendall provided no updates. “We’re going to try and replace a flying mission with a flying mission,” he said, “and if we can’t do that, we’re going to replace it with a high-value mission that will be enduring.”
On the Space Guard, Kendall said he had “been hoping that Congress will solve this problem for me. People in these units are in limbo right now and they need to be told what their future is. This needs to be settled.”
He warned that America can’t afford ongoing “inertia” over the Space Guard’s fate because of the threat China poses. “I believe the Air Force and the Space Force are the keys to our future operational success,” Kendall said.
Besides speaking during a main session, the Air Force secretary attended the Adjutants General Reception the evening before, spoke to a group of congressional staffers attending the conference and visited some of the 318 companies in the exhibition hall.
What we want are trained, fit, disciplined, cohesive and lethal teams.
—Gen. Randy A. George, the Army chief of staff
THE GUARD’S SENIOR GENERAL used his conference remarks to explain why Guard soldiers and airmen do what they do.
“We serve for the future, for global stability, for the continuation of the American experiment,” said Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the National Guard Bureau chief, during the First Business/Professional Development Session. “These are not self-executing endeavors. They are not given; they are not granted. They are earned, and they are earned anew by every generation of American service members.”
Hokanson listed recent examples of how Guardsmen have served at home and overseas:
● Almost 7.5 million personnel days supporting combatant commands at home and around the world last year.
● Approximately 8,500 people were rescued during domestic disasters.
● Four more nations were added to the State Partnership Program, which now includes 100 countries worldwide.
The Guard, Hokanson said, is a local force with global reach, echoing the conference theme.
“We serve because there is a calling inside each of us to make a difference,” the NGB chief told the main session. “We seek challenges, wanting to learn more, do more and be more. We are driven by an innate internal force to do something good — the 1% who bears the weight of our national and global security and defends the international rules-based order.
“The rare drive that leads us to take an oath to the Constitution is the same drive that propels us into action — both in and out of uniform.”
This was Hokanson’s last NGAUS conference as NGB chief. His four-year term ends next summer. As he has the last three conferences, he ran the 5k fun run, attended multiple social events and spent time with company-grade officers during their separate officer professional development program. He was also the first speaker during the new Minuteman Speaker Series in the exhibition hall.
Additionally, Kelly Hokanson, the NGB chief ’s wife, and Margo Berry, the wife of Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the adjutant general of Nevada and the NGAUS vice chair-Air, hosted the conference’s first Spouses Seminar. The agenda included family issues and their importance to readiness and retention.
The Constitution was at the heart of retired Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar’s presentation on the legal foundation of the Guard during the Second Business/Professional Development Session. The former NGAUS chairman explained how the force gained its place in the document, which is the supreme law of the land.
An attorney who has researched the origins of the Guard, Dunbar said the framer’s reliance on the militia with a small but scalable standing army was a compromise. “Without this compromise,” he said, “key states of the original 13 would not have ratified [the Constitution], and the United States that we know and love and serve would not exist in its current form today.”
And the Constitution makes clear, he said, that Guardsmen are under the command of the states until they are mobilized by the federal government. This includes “the appointment of the officers and the authority to train the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”
Several laws passed since 1903 have altered federal support, recognition, mobilization procedures and where the Guard can be deployed, but the state’s power over the force until it’s federalized “has not changed since ratification of our Constitution.”
“It is an unfortunate truth that the vast majority of our nation, including elected leaders, business leaders, even senior military leaders, really don’t understand the National Guard and the framework under which it was created and under which it operates,” Dunbar said.
China is a more significant competitor, by far, than even the Soviet Union was.
—Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall
THE CONFERENCE is also the association’s annual business meeting. On the event’s final day, delegates passed 188 Army, Air and Joint resolutions that will form the basis of the association’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill next year.
Representatives from all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia developed the final package of resolutions in meetings earlier in the conference.
Elections to the NGAUS board of directors were another business item. This year’s elections included the three representatives (adjutant general, Army and Air) for Areas II and V, the Air company-grade representative and the Army retired/separated representative. The results were:
● In Area II, Col. Brian Borakove of the District of Columbia (Army) and Lt. Col. Jody Schweickart of Ohio (Air) were all reelected.
● In Area V, delegates reelected Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers of Michigan as the TAG representative, while electing two new service representatives, Lt. Col. Quenten Johnson of South Dakota (Army) and Col. Jeannie Jeanetta of Wisconsin (Air).
● The Air company-grade representative and the Army retired/ separated representative are also new. First Lt. Thomas Flores of New Mexico was elected by his fellow company-grade officers to serve on the NGAUS board as their Air representative.
● Army retirees, meanwhile, selected retired Brig. Gen. Mike Oster of South Dakota to be their board representative. Oster previously represented Area V.
NGAUS also presented a record 43 individual awards in Reno, including two Harry S. Truman Awards, which is the association’s highest honor. It recognizes sustained contributions of exceptional, far-reaching magnitude to the defense and security of the United States. Previous recipients include presidents, members of Congress, governors and senior general officers.
The Truman Awards went to Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., and Guam Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero.
Kelly is co-chair of the House National Guard and Reserves Caucus and also a major general in the Mississippi Army Guard.
“I’m one of the few to receive this award and I’m extremely hum- bled and grateful to all of you who put me on the path to get here,” he said during his presentation ceremony.
Serving in her second term as Guam’s governor, Guerrero was recognized for her contributions to the defense and security of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command region. Her nomination from the Guam Guard included an endorsement letter from Admiral John C. Aquilino, the commander of INDOPACOM.
She is the first recipient from a U.S. territory. Guam is in the South Pacific about 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, but less than 3,000 miles east of China.
“In accepting this award,” she told attendees the award, “I am reminded of the responsibilities that come with it — to continue advocating for the needs of our National Guard, to ensure their well-being and preparedness and to champion the values that make our community strong.”
Many conference speeches are available on the NGAUS YouTube channel at www,youtube.com/user/NGAUS1878.
John Goheen is the NGAUS director of communications. He can be reached at [email protected].
Event returns to the Motor City for the first time since 1964
The 146th General Conference & Exhibition is set for Aug. 23-26, 2024, in Detroit, a city known for its historic contributions to American music, sports and the U.S. auto industry.
The National Guard Association of Michigan has some big plans for the event. Among them is waiving the $180 conference registration fee for all company-grade officers and their spouses, Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, the adjutant general of Michigan, told conference attendees in Reno, Nevada, during a preview of next year’s meeting.
Most conference events and activities are set for downtown Detroit, which has experienced a comeback over the last decade that has accelerated in recent years, with many new or restored bars, restaurants and other attractions.
“If you haven’t been to Detroit in the last three years, you haven’t been to Detroit,” Rogers said.
Many people have been to the Motor City the last few years. Detroit now sees about 16 million visitors a year, according to local tourism officials. And national organizations are taking notice. For example, the NFL will hold its three-day NFL draft outdoors in the city next year.
NGAUS conference meetings and the exhibition are set for Huntington Place, the 16th largest convention center in the United States and one of the nation’s busiest.
Among the planned social events is a Caribbean Carnival on Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River near downtown, that will serve as the combined Company Grade/Field Grade/Warrant Officer Mixer on Aug. 23. The host state will be getting some help with the event from the Virgin Islands Guard.
Additional conference details will be available here in the months ahead.
— By John Goheen