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For State Guard, time to step up

Post-9/11 deployments mean new tasks for Texas' storied militia

Austin American Statesman/August 21, 2004
By Mike Ward

The Texas State Guard, once thought of as a mostly ceremonial cadre of retired soldiers whose military roots date to the state's colorful frontier days, is getting an expanded and much more serious mission for the first time in nearly a half-century.

State officials said Friday that as more National Guard units are called to duty in Iraq and in the war against terrorism, the change is much welcomed and much needed.

"Their mission is increasing," said Gov. Rick Perry, commander in chief of the nearly 1,200-member State Guard, a descendant of the civilian volunteer State Defense Guard that protected Lone Star borders during World War II and the volunteer militias that policed the wild and woolly frontier during the 19th century.

"They are very well-trained now, and they'll be picking up the slack as the National Guard units are deployed. Their role and mission is shifting as we speak," Perry said.

Officials said the buildup of the Texas State Guard began more than two years ago, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, as Perry and other state leaders looked for ways to beef up Texas' military forces. Eight or so years before that, National Guard officials had begun restructuring the all-volunteer State Guard to sharpen its focus and organizational structure to better serve as another arm of Texas' military forces.

What that could all mean in coming months and years, officials said, is that State Guard troops could be called out to help set up and run shelters during hurricanes or floods, assist in law-enforcement emergencies or provide security support anywhere in Texas at Perry's call -- all missions that Texas National Guard troops have done.

"We won't go to war, but everything else about the Texas State Guard is strictly military," said Sgt. Maj. Larry Todd, the Guard's public affairs officer in Austin. "State Guard personnel are truly citizen soldiers. They do this because they want to serve their state and their country."

Lt. Col. John Stanford, public affairs officer for Texas Military Forces at Camp Mabry, said State Guard personnel -- most them retired U.S. military, from all walks of life -- serve without pay, benefits or travel allowances.

"We even pay for our own uniforms," Todd said.

Most serve in military police units, officials said, although the State Guard has organized an air wing to support the Texas Air National Guard and a medical support unit that can be deployed. Like Texas' regular military forces, the State Guard is headquartered at Camp Mabry.

"They don't have big helicopters or the high-clearance vehicles like the National Guard does, but they are trained so they can join the National Guard and be the extra hands of the National Guard as the Guard takes on other roles," Stanford said. "They're now another asset the governor can reach out to."

Civilian militias in Texas have a long and colorful history dating back to the days of Sam Houston and the Republic of Texas. Through the Civil War and the Spanish American War, militia units with names such as Terry's Texas Rangers, the Austin Greys and Travis Rifles became history book fare. Camp Mabry's origin in the late 1800s was as a training ground for the volunteer militias.

But those times ended when the National Guard was formed in about 1903, officials said.

In 1940, with World War II on the horizon for America, an act of Congress re-formed the civilian militias as a home guard. A year later, when their name was changed to the Defense Guard, Texas had 173 companies in place, with 500 officers and 6,000 enlisted men. They became the Texas State Guard in 1943, under the command of the governor and the state's adjutant general, and served through World War II to protect key public installations, such as war plants, refineries and electric substations, and to quell riots and provide assistance after weather disasters. State Guard members worked storms, riots and the 1947 Texas City disaster.

The Guard was disbanded in August 1947, replaced by a civilian reserve corps that helped civil authorities and the Red Cross during natural disasters. And in 1961, they staffed armories across Texas after the National Guard was called into federal service during the Berlin Crisis. The Legislature re-established the Texas State Guard in 1965 as an all-volunteer organization that supported the National Guard with little public attention or backing.

"It started out as mostly older guys who were too old to go to World War II," Stanford said. "Then, years ago, it was mostly retired guys. . . . It was mostly a ceremonial role. But in the last four or five years, that has changed completely.

"What is happening now is significant."

Col. Chet Brooks, a former state senator from Pasadena who has been in the State Guard for 15 years, agreed.

"We used to do special events in the community, and some emergency response in the field to assist the (National) Guard, but now our mission is changing rather dramatically -- with more of a focus on search and rescue and security issues," he said.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Perry and state officials moved to reposition the State Guard, according to officials. And as world events have brought the National Guard into active duty -- 5,300 of Texas' more than 20,000 National Guard troops are now in what's called federal status -- the need for the State Guard has increased, Stanford said.

"They are another asset that is available to the governor now in the event of an emergency," he said. "That used to fall mostly to the National Guard."

Since the mission was stepped up, State Guard officials said, troops have assisted National Guard troops with flood notification and evacuations, in the search and recovery operations after Space Shuttle Columbia crashed, and have begun regularly training with National Guard units.

The 17 other states with state guard units have been realigning their missions in similar fashion, officials said.

"Many of the other states have much smaller (state guard) forces than Texas does," Stanford said. "Of the 17, about half of them have active militias -- and Texas is among the most active right now."

For his part, Todd said he likes the State Guard because it gives him a chance to serve his state and country, and continue a tradition of military service he has come to appreciate and enjoy.

Maj. Gen. Richard Box, an Austin dentist and Vietnam veteran who serves as state commander of the Texas State Guard, echoes the sentiment.

"I am proud to command the men and women of the Texas State Guard and to work to ensure our readiness in support of the governor's mission," he said. "We are here to assist and help as needed, and we will do so with professionalism and resolve."

mward@statesman.com
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