Panetta welcomes National Guard chief nobody wanted

The first full-term National Guard chief finally is taking his seat at the table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swore in the new chief of the National Guard, on Friday, Army Gen. Frank Grass, with an emphatic endorsement of the commander’s skills and Guard’s importance to national defense. "Today, we ...

DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

The first full-term National Guard chief finally is taking his seat at the table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swore in the new chief of the National Guard, on Friday, Army Gen. Frank Grass, with an emphatic endorsement of the commander's skills and Guard's importance to national defense.

"Today, we entrust General Grass with a national treasure - a force that has been transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of the operational military, and whose ranks are now filled with skilled combat veterans," Panetta said in his address.

It was almost enough to make one forget that one year ago nobody wanted him at the table in the Tank, including Panetta.

The first full-term National Guard chief finally is taking his seat at the table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swore in the new chief of the National Guard, on Friday, Army Gen. Frank Grass, with an emphatic endorsement of the commander’s skills and Guard’s importance to national defense.

"Today, we entrust General Grass with a national treasure – a force that has been transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of the operational military, and whose ranks are now filled with skilled combat veterans," Panetta said in his address.

It was almost enough to make one forget that one year ago nobody wanted him at the table in the Tank, including Panetta.

For years, the movement to upgrade the National Guard chief to become a full member of the Joint Chiefs went nowhere. For some, it was a sappy attempt to bestow an honor on Guardsmen who became essential to the Iraq and Afghanistan war. For opponents, the reality of the change on the battlefield outweighed the benefit.

"I am not sure what is broken and what we are fixing," Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November.

Even though the Guard has been included in Joint Chief decision-making since around 2008, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey openly opposed adding the National Guard seat. For one, he argued last fall, the Guard cuts across all services, so those troops already are represented in the Tank by their existing service-branch chief.

Additionally there is no unique budget authority for the National Guard, an item Panetta noted last year in taking Dempsey’s advice against the spot. Even Gen. Ray Odierno didn’t want the change, a significant opponent given the importance of Guardsmen supplementing regular Army soldiers toward the service’s ability to sustain its high "operational tempo" during last decade of war.

Congress won, inserting the upgrade in the defense authorization bill President Obama signed in January. Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, who already was the top Guard officer, served only eight months as the first Joint Chiefs-level National Guard leader.

All signs of animosity were long gone in Panetta’s first change-of-command speech for Grass, who will serve the first full term for a National Guard chief (traditionally service chiefs serve two, two-year terms).  Grass was deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, and vice commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, known more famously as NORAD.

"As we draw down from these wars, and we face the complex and threatening international security environment, with threats that are real, and threats that we have to confront in order to protect this country, I know that General Grass will work harder to ensure that we retain that hard-won experience and expertise in the Guard," Panetta said. "That is something we cannot lose.  That is something we must protect for the future."

What a difference a year makes.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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