Craig Richard McKinley was a Florida Air National Guard two-star general assigned to the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 began altering his and the entire National Guard’s world in ways he might not have imagined.
He was conducting a staff meeting as the Air Force’s deputy inspector general in a fourth-floor room, 4E1076, in the Pentagon’s southeast corner when he “heard or felt a rumble” that might have been an earthquake.
But everyone knew better. They had been watching CNN’s surreal images of the smoking World Trade Center towers in New York City when the hijacked Boeing 757 plowed into the Pentagon’s west side and exploded in a huge ball of fire. It was 9:37 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 — the 60th anniversary of the Pentagon’s groundbreaking.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that we had become the third target on that morning of the attack,” recalls McKinley. “It was pretty obvious to most of us that we had just entered a new phase in American history.”
Two soldiers with ties to the Army Guard, Indiana Lt. Col. Canfield “Bud” Boone and Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer William Ruth, who had previously served in the Maryland Guard, were among 125 Army staff members and 64 on board the plane who were killed uncomfortably close to where McKinley was located.
Fate, as it turned out, held a different future for that Air Guard officer and for the entire Guard. A decade later, Craig McKinley was the Guard’s first four-star general and the first chief of the National Guard Bureau to become a full-fledged member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Guard had moved up to the bigtime.
The road to the seat at that prestigious table began with 9/11. It was far from smooth. It required a cultural change within the Guard. It required standing up to some of the most powerful people in the Defense Department. It required at least two acts of Congress. And it required doing much of the work on the fly because the Guard quickly found itself engaged on two fronts early in the Global War on Terror — airport security and other Noble Eagle missions here at home and Enduring Freedom operations focused against Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hurricane Katrina and Operation Jump Start along the southwest border exacerbated the challenges and opportunities for the Guard to show how much it could do.
Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, McKinley’s predecessor as NGB chief, gets much of the credit for taking the point. McKinley, with overwhelming support from Congress, sealed the deal.
“General Blum had a vision that the National Guard Bureau could be more than just an administrative channel of communication with the states,” McKinley says. “He and his team built a Guard Bureau that was more than just an overseer of resources to the states. After 9/11 we needed to do more than that.”
“9/11 served as a wakeup call and a sobering reminder that this nation only exists because of the citizen-soldier,” insists Blum, who, at the time, was commander of the 29th Infantry Division and preparing to take over the U.S. peacekeeping sector in Bosnia. He would become NGB chief in 2003.
“For many, many years, this nation had been lulled into a false sense of security that we were invulnerable. And it’s worthy of note that the first military responders to that event were the Army and Air National Guard. And they remained on duty in the air and on the ground for many months afterwards.”
It was pretty obvious to most of us that we had just entered a new phase in American history.
—Gen. Craig R. McKinley (Ret.), former chief of the National Guard Bureau, who was in the Pentagon on 9/11
IF NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION, the necessities of 9/11, plus the events during the next few years, required the Guard to reinvent itself from a strategic reserve into an operational force. Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum was its Thomas Alva Edison.
Transforming Guard operations in all of the states and territories was the first order of change because the Army and Air Guard had more or less existed as separate entities for more than 50 years. The Army Guard had STARCs — state area commands. The Air Guard had small, independent state headquarters, but it was the wings, many factored into major Air Force commands, that held sway. Establishing joint forces headquarters seemed to be the answer.
The Army Guard had to change the most and become better “operationalized,” recalls retired Maryland Army Guard Col. Drew Sullins who was a young major and Blum’s aide during those days. “Blum comes in and shakes everything up because that’s kind of how he is. He gets you out of your comfort zone pretty quickly. I think a lot of people were shaken, not stirred, by Steve Blum.”
“9/11 made it very, very clear that we couldn’t stay organized as state area commands, completely land focused — that there was a multidomain component to defending this country, and that the Air National Guard had an equal role to play in this as the Army did,” Blum explains. “So it only made sense to create joint forces headquarters in the states. And in most of the states that meant being able to coordinate the ground forces and the air forces and the maritime forces to include the Navy, the Coast Guard and so forth. The joint forces headquarters was an absolute imperative. It wasn’t just a clever idea. 9/11 clearly revealed the necessity for that.”
Not everyone saw it that way. “I think several states really struggled with the joint transformation,” Sullins recalls. “Some of the states really embraced it. I think some states didn’t want to do it. They didn’t see what Blum saw — the goodness that could come from that.”
Other real-world events after 9/11, including Operation Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2003, Hurricane Katrina and related storms in 2005, and Operation Jump Start in 2006, which sent thousands of Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexico border, played right into Blum’s wheelhouse, even though they were painful for the nation.
“Had those things never happened,” Sullins says, “everything would have been theoretical.”
Blum also pushed for a rapid increase in the Guard’s domestic response capabilities. It wasn’t if but when another 9/11-attack would occur and the Guard needed specialized capabilities to fill in gaps in what state and local government had at their disposal.
Very quickly, the number of 22-member Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Teams grew from 10 to 57. The Guard also added larger chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive enhanced response teams nationwide to augment CSTs in responding to WMD. Their tasks included treating casualties, decontaminating personnel, searching for and extracting victims from rubble and conducting security.
Meanwhile, another 80,000 were engaged in the Global Wear on Terrorism. Fifty percent of the maneuver brigades in Iraq were from the Army Guard during part of 2005.
The force would’ve been hard-pressed to provide that level of contribution four years earlier. Many units were understrength by Army design. Their authorized number of soldiers was less than the number they required to go to war. The theory was, the required soldiers would be added prior to mobilization, but from where? It also made it harder to train before mobilization. The numbers had to be balanced for the Guard to provide ready forces to the Army.
The Army Guard also had to shift from its division-based structure to more closely mirror the active-component’s brigade concept. It meant closing some armories and retraining some troops, but it also justified a significant infusion of badly needed new equipment.
Those early mobilizations were much longer than in recent years, usually 18 months long — six months post-mobilization training followed by 12 months boots on the ground overseas. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reduced the mobilizations to 12 months in 2007, which cut post-mob training in half.
The Air Guard handled deployments differently. It has deployed since before 9/11 for shorter periods and relies on mostly volunteers. As a result, many Guard airmen have deployed 10 or more times in the last 20 years. In all, more than 1 million Guard soldiers and airmen have deployed overseas since 2001.
9/11 served as a wakeup call and a sobering reminder that this nation only exists because of the citizen-soldier.
—Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum (Ret.), former chief of the National Guard Bureau
BUT ONE KEY ELEMENT WAS MISSING — an equal voice for the Guard in the Pentagon. Some claim that transformation gave Blum the incentive to begin pushing the idea that the NGB chief should become a full-fledged member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Steve Blum and his team thought we should be more involved at the decision-making point of who goes to war, when they go to fight, how do we mobilize because our airmen and soldiers had civilian jobs?” says McKinley. “It started to look like the momentum was building that as long as the National Guard was going to be used so extensively, we needed a seat at the table. The adjutants general felt we needed a seat at the table.
“There’s an old adage that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
There was just one problem. The high rollers in the Pentagon were dead set against inviting the Guard chief to dinner. The emotions were mixed about making the chief a four-star general, which would restore some order to the NGB hierarchy by elevating that position above the three-star directors of the Army and Air Guard. But give the chief a seat at the Joint Chiefs’ table?
The issue was raised in Congress in early 2007, nearly four years into Blum’s tenure as the NGB chief and while McKinley was the Air Guard’s director. The National Guard Empowerment Act of 2007, introduced in the Senate on Jan. 30, proposed making the chief a four-star general with membership on the Joint Chiefs.
Meanwhile, an Independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves was considering the matter and recommended in a March 1 report to Congress that the chief’s rank be bumped up to general but that “the Chief of the National Guard Bureau should not be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Congress accepted the four-star provision in the fiscal 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, which President George W. Bush signed on Jan. 28. It came 100 years after the creation of the Division of Militia Affairs, the precursor of NGB. McKinley put on the fourth star 10 months later, Nov. 17, upon succeeding Blum as the NGB chief. Blum became deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command and vice commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s U.S. Element in Colorado the following January.
The seat on the Joint Chiefs remained an elephant in the Pentagon’s “Tank” where they meet. It was revived in the 2011 National Guard Empowerment and State-National Defense Integration Act introduced in the Senate in May. The chiefs still hated it. But the Senate’s robust National Guard Caucus, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., embraced it, and NGAUS used every resource it had to push it.
Things came to a head on Nov. 10 when the members of the Joint Chiefs and McKinley all sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There is no compelling military justification to support this historic change,” stated Gen. Martin Dempsey, the JCS chairman, as reported by the American Society of Military Comptrollers. Dempsey insisted he was a strong advocate for the Guard. Still, his reasoning amounted to: Don’t fix what ain’t broke.
Dempsey said he ensured that the Guard chief was heard; that the change would undermine the service secretaries’ and chiefs’ decisions about organizing, training and equipping the entire force, and that the chief had no accountability to a civilian secretary.
When asked, all six Joint Chiefs generals said “No,” recalled McKinley. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had expressed his opposition in October.
Then McKinley was asked.
“You can imagine the feeling I had at that moment, representing over 400,000 members of the Guard, Air and Army,” he recalls. He said, “Yes.”
“Pride in our service affiliations [to the Army and Air Force] is a core competency of the National Guard,” the NGB chief said at the time, stated the Military Comptrollers’ report.
The National Guard has significant authorities and responsibilities, especially in the area of homeland security and domestic missions, which should be directly represented in the Joint Chiefs’ decision-making process, he pointed out. These make adding the NGB chief as a full member of the JCS “the next logical step to improve the Joint Chiefs’ ability to provide the best possible advice to civilian leaders,” he said.
“The past years have proven our worth. We are effective. We’re combat ready. Our adjutants general in the states have done a magnificent job getting them ready. And I only think it’s fair for those men and women who serve to have representation on the Joint Chiefs.”
CONGRESS HAD THE LAST WORD and weighed heavily in the Guard’s favor. Leahy and Graham led the Senate’s 84-member National Guard Caucus that supported their bill called “Guard Empowerment II.” The bill gained 71 Senate co-sponsors.
The House had approved the measure earlier in the year in a voice vote, despite the original legislation only having a few co-sponsors.
The planets had aligned. The provision was included in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act which Congress passed on Dec. 15 and President Barack Obama signed on the last day of 2011. The National Guard was no longer on the menu. The chief was at the table.
“Since 9/11, the Guard and Reserve have been indispensable to fighting the War on Terror and protecting the homeland,” praised Graham. “The Guard now will have a voice and a policy role suited to the vital role the Guard has assumed in our security structure,” stated Leahy.
“We look forward to working alongside the other Joint Chiefs to provide our nation’s senior leaders with a fuller picture of the non-federalized National Guard as it serves in support of homeland defense and civil support missions,” McKinley stated.
How was he received in the “Tank”? “Very well. They were all gentlemen,” McKinley recalled.
“They told me I was part of the team and that whatever issues we’d had leading up to that point were forgotten, and we would give our best advice up through the chairman to the secretary of defense.”
“We’re now on our fourth iteration of the four-star chief,” McKinley adds. “Since I’ve retired in 2012, we’ve had Frank Grass, Joe Lengyel and now Dan Hokanson.
“I’ve been so proud of what the Guard has done nationwide during this pandemic. People who built the National Guard into such a credible force enabled those who followed to transform themselves into what the nation required, and I believe with all my heart that we’re training young men and women now who will continue that service much as our militia men and women did at the start of the Guard’s history.”
The world’s most devastating terrorist attack prompted many institutions, besides the Guard, to make monumental changes. It quickly led to unprecedented airport security measures because hijacked jetliners were the instruments of death. It influenced how future skyscrapers would be built with more safety features, including 50% wider stairways. It also brought about the Patriot Act, the first of many changes to surveillance laws that remain in place today.
9/11 fomented the huge new Department of Homeland Security to include the new Transportation Security Administration. And it led to this country’s 20-year War on Terror against the Taliban in Afghanistan, America’s longest conflict.
The attacks that day were hardly the first momentous event that caused the Guard to change the way it operates. But it cannot be denied, 20 years later, that it certainly changed how the Guard looked on 9/10.
Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted at [email protected].