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National Guard Magazine |
December 2022


In the morning of Sept. 11. 2001, I was at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. for a judicial conference.

As I learned of the developing situation and quietly informed Chief Justice William Rehnquist, we felt a bump that I later learned was an airplane striking the Pentagon. While being ushered out of the building, I remember looking up and seeing the fighter jets of the D.C. National Guard streak across the sky.

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Five hundred miles north, Vermont’s own National Guard was also responding. A crew chief turned his vehicle around when he heard of the unfolding events and drove to the gate of the Burlington Air Guard base. He got out, told his family he loved them and asked his wife to send his uniform and a toothbrush.

The Guard never lets us down, and we must never let our Guard down.

Meanwhile, Guard pilots took to the air having to contemplate the unthinkable: The idea of possibly having to shoot down an airliner that they could very well have been flying that morning as a civilian.

This event is one of two that motivated my work as co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus. It was among the worst days of my Senate service, but the men and women of the National Guard were ready and were there for something no one had imagined.

They stayed on alert as they flew creating a new sort of mission. When Congress authorized hunting down the people who planned and carried out the attack, the Guard was called on to redefine how a reserve component trained and deployed — while training and deploying.

Later, amidst the Iraq War, it became so clear to me and to my caucus co-chair, Sen. Lindsey Graham, despite our opposite stances on its justification, that the Guard we have now is fundamentally different than the one envisioned in the past. We thought of all those stories of heroism — every senator had one — and we set about steadily changing laws and policies to better support those who served, as well as ensuring they had the force structure to succeed.

Most prominently, we concluded that because the Guard was now integral to every mission, at home and abroad, the president had to hear directly from someone who understood the Guard completely, because he or she was from the Guard.

It took some work, but it was the best kind of legislative wrangling. We only had to make sure senators were listening to people in their own states. The excellence of their friends and neighbors in the Guard made the argument for us. By 2011, I was proud to show the secretary of defense the filibuster-proof list of co-sponsors to add the chief of the National Guard Bureau to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That same year I witnessed the second major moment that motivates me. Hurricane Irene had ravaged the East Coast, reaching Vermont and parking overhead, deluging the Green Mountains and turning our picturesque streams into destructive forces.

Standing with Vermont’s adjutant general in towns that were literally cut-off from civilization and watching the Guard deliver water buffalos to thirsty Vermonters as engineers worked around the clock to build new roads, I felt at my core how important it was to have a dual-mission force.

When I speak about the value of the Guard to other senators, to defense officials and to military officers, I tell these two stories, not just because they mean so much to me personally, but also because I am sure almost everyone has similar stories about the Guard. I have been deeply honored to play a role in supporting the Guard as co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus because I have been deeply touched by the professionalism, talent and dedication of the Guard in Vermont and throughout the nation.

As my service as an elected official comes to an end, I wish to thank the members of the Guard for always working with me to find the best way forward on legislation, for always taking time to tell your story, and, most especially, for being always ready, always there.

As I have often said over these many years, the Guard never lets us down, and we must never let our Guard down.

The author, a Democrat from Vermont, has been the co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus since 1999.