10 Questions: General Frank J. Grass, Chief of the National Guard Bureau
Armchair General interviews the Chief of the National Guard Bureau
General Frank J. Grass became Chief of the National Guard Bureau in 2012. He began his military career by joining the Missouri National Guard in 1969 and has served in a wide variety of command and staff positions during his distinguished career of over four decades. Given the difficult budget choices now facing the Department of Defense that will affect the U.S. military’s active and reserve components, readers will find this interview with General Grass to be particularly timely and extremely enlightening.
1 – ACG: The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 made the Chief of National Guard Bureau a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. How significant is this for the National Guard?
GRASS: Without question, representing the National Guard’s interests as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is significant. We are an equal partner. In addition to my responsibility as a Joint Chief to provide military advice to the President, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense, I am specifically charged with advising senior leaders on matters pertaining to non-federalized National Guard state missions. These changes were implemented because of the increased importance of homeland security and disaster response in our country, and the need to better integrate the state and federal response.
2 – ACG: What have been the tangible benefits of this new designation?
GRASS: A seat on the JCS has strengthened the National Guard, the active component forces and our nation – operationally and fiscally. The voice of the National Guard is being heard at the highest levels. The new access has already paid dividends, particularly in domestic emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, the California wildfires, and the Colorado floods. I was able to immediately brief the Secretary of Defense and the President about the National Guard’s response and capabilities, as well as the Governor’s requirements to support the citizens of their states. This significant access provides for a more coordinated state and federal response through unity of effort and unity of command…time and distance equals lives.
3 – ACG: National Guard units have been extensively deployed in combat since 2001. How are our citizen Soldiers coping with the inevitable disruption (family separation, absence from jobs, etc.) that such deployments cause?
GRASS: Everywhere I go our Soldiers and Airmen tell me they want to be a part of operational missions and dynamic training. They want to remain operational. They want to be challenged and to have opportunities to train, exercise and deploy. They want their service to be meaningful – that’s why they joined the Guard. That’s why one of my top priorities is to take care of them, their families and their employers in order to mitigate difficulties associated with deployments. We are working hard to help leaders recognize and mitigate high stress and risk factors. We’re also working with a network of strategic partners to connect the vast community resources available in order to promote resiliency and ensure the right help is there when it’s needed.
4 – ACG: How have Guardsmen’s families and employers responded to the absences?
GRASS: One of my main priorities is taking care of our Soldiers, Airmen and their families. They are the foundation of our force and I am committed to their safety and well being. Overall our families are resilient and cope with the stresses of deployments. Deployment is an extremely stressful time for all of our families. Each family is unique, so the circumstances of deployments affect them differently. Typically, they turn to various sources of support; with friends, family members, their spouse, Family Support Groups and other family readiness personnel.
Over the past decade, the National Guard has developed our family readiness services to help them deal with the stresses brought on by deployments. This enhances our service members’ and families’ abilities to strengthen their relationships and families. When they do need assistance, our state family program personnel, Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)-contracted non-medical counselors, and Directors of Psychological Health provide needed information and referral to help them adjust and strengthen their families. Likewise, Strong Bonds is a chaplain-led program that teaches communication, conflict resolution and value clarification skills to married couples. The program strengthens marriages and increases resilience in participants.
As deployments have increased over the past decade, America’s employers have had to make great sacrifices as well, and we know that our missions cannot succeed without their tremendous support. I’m often moved by how many employers continue to go above and beyond by offering initiatives to ensure service members and their families are taken care of throughout all types of military service. Many employers offer special hiring programs, provide personal support to families such as home maintenance, and continue full benefits, salary, and additional paid leave options during deployment. We’ve found that the key to maintaining this support and positive relationship is to have open communication with employers and to provide them with as much predictability as possible.
5 – ACG: How have these deployments raised the profile of the National Guard?
GRASS: Today’s National Guard is the most highly skilled and best equipped National Guard this country has ever known. After more than a decade of war, we have proven ourselves as an indispensible force that is trained and ready to respond wherever we’re needed, when we’re needed. When the nation needs the National Guard, we are all-in. Clearly, the National Guard’s transformation into an operational force has raised its profile through relevance. So too has its involvement in security cooperation through the State Partnership Program. But relevance isn’t the only aspect of the Guard that is getting a lot of attention right now. The National Guard delivers proven, affordable security…and we do it on an as-needed basis. When considered against the budgetary constraints we all face under the Budget Control Act, a lot of people inside and outside the Pentagon are closely examining the National Guard. Many see us as a prime example of how to sustain maximum military capability and capacity while getting the best value for our defense dollar. What they are discovering is that the National Guard as an operational force provides sensible options to sustain capability. The National Guard costs less to maintain during peacetime and has proven it can respond on-time when needed. These attributes provide the Defense Department options to lower overall personnel costs and to reinvest those savings into areas like research and procurement, allowing our country to keep a technological edge.
The National Guard Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) cost about one-third that of an active component BCT. Additionally, the National Guard offers options to maintain greater capacity as a hedge against uncertainty. Such savings are not limited to BCTs. The National Guard provides immense value to taxpayers through its additional roles in defending the homeland or responding to natural or man-made disasters. Fiscal scrutiny is an inescapable reality within the Pentagon today. When the need for affordable security is considered alongside the National Guard’s current high state of readiness and dual-use wartime and homeland response capabilities a strong, logical case can be made for sustaining its significant role in bolstering the Total Force.
6 – ACG: What have been the enlistments trends since 2001?
GRASS: Every one of our National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have either enlisted or reenlisted since 9/11. This fact is important. I can say with confidence that the National Guard is all-in for the nation when called upon. Wherever I go, I talk with the troops and I ask them how they’re doing. They tell me they are proud of their uniform and proud of the National Guard. But most of all, they are proud of their involvement and performance. Our soldiers and airmen want to continue to serve their communities and have opportunities to deploy. They want more. They want to help keep America and the world safe and strong. Many are making a career of the National Guard and that allows us to sustain the experiences and knowledge we have gained. Likewise, we have been the benefactor of expertise flowing from the active component into the National Guard. The National Guard is a repository for experiences gathered from military service, but also through the civilian expertise of our members. This combination gives us an edge — something different and very valuable that applies in countless ways across our warfighting, homeland and security cooperation missions. The relationships we maintain between the National Guard, civilian employers and our local communities are critical to retention and to new enlistments. The social networks that define the National Guard as a community-based force are formed at the local level, just as they have been for the past 377 years. They extend beyond the uniform and the armory. When Guard members serve their communities, they serve their nation. Our existence inside America’s heart and soul, coupled with our close connection and relevance within the Total Force, is what impacts our ability to retain quality people the most.
7 – ACG: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the National Guard today?
GRASS: I think the greatest challenge facing the National Guard today is remaining operational in the face of extreme budget cuts. The cuts are coming and they will have an impact on the readiness and capability of the entire Defense department. Depending on how they fall, the National Guard stands to lose readiness and capability that has been hard-earned. In fact, we’re already seeing some off-ramping of training and deployments, as well as fewer joint exercise opportunities. No other U.S. military component possesses our dual-mission capabilities and authorities. We are proven on the battlefield and the domestic response front, while giving America the best value for its defense dollar. It makes sense to maintain these capabilities. Maintaining relevant Guard capabilities complements our Army and Air Force in powerful ways. It is critical that the National Guard retain an experienced force through dynamic training opportunities and stability operations. The nation has made a large investment in the Guard and it should continue to be leveraged.
8 – ACG: Armchair General magazine feature stories of military leaders, so our readers would like to know what leaders in history you most admire?
GRASS: It has been said that one of the defining characteristics of great leadership is a talent for turning visions of the future into history. I have always admired George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for having done that. I also greatly respected their diverse knowledge and abilities. Born and raised in Missouri, I grew up admiring Harry Truman, a fellow National Guardsmen. His decisiveness at a particularly pivotal point in our nation’s history saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. I also found Meriweather Lewis’ and William Clark’s sense of adventure and determination inspirational.
9 – ACG: Can you share with our readers what you believe are the main traits of truly outstanding leaders?
GRASS: I’ve been very fortunate to have been exposed to and mentored by some of this country’s great leaders during my more than four decades of military service. The ones I admired most possessed three critical leadership traits. They were analytical, decisive and compassionate. I’ve been the Chief of the National Guard Bureau for a little over a year now and have had to make some tough decisions. In each instance, I thoroughly analyzed information from multiple sources, weighed the pros and cons, gave serious consideration to how it would impact our people, and made the decision. Ultimately, I believe these traits have helped me reach decisions that will benefit our National Guard and our nation for years to come.
10 – ACG: Are you interested in military history, and if so, what aspects of it are important to you?
GRASS: Absolutely. As was once said, ‘those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Most military leaders are exposed to a healthy dose of military strategy and history throughout their careers. I can tell you that many decisions reached at the highest levels of government are informed by lessons from the past. What made a great leader in the early days of our country is still applicable today. Our greatest leaders have always protected their greatest assets, their people.
I have also been very interested in how technology has changed warfare. From catapults to artillery; from early air combat to today’s remotely piloted aircraft — technology helps ensure our troops are as safe as they can possibly be when they are on the battlefield. Technology has also changed the landscape of warfare. Cyber, in particular, is a unique domain. While in the past our adversaries were more likely to attack overseas, a likely scenario today is a computer network attack that could cripple U.S. infrastructure. Strong cyber security is essential in today’s environment, and the National Guard is uniquely postured for this mission. Our reservoir of Guard members who excel in the information technology (IT) field, many working for world renowned IT corporations, offer the defense department a viable way to bolster our nation’s cyber defense.
John Ingoldsby, an award-winning writer on the intersection of sports and the military, conducted this interview. He is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment, Inc. (IIRsports.com) in Boston, a media & public relations firm.