National Guard May Receive Joint Chiefs Spot

The most elite club in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is set to get a new member: the chief of the National Guard. Congress approved the change as part of the defense authorization bill last week and the president is expected to sign the bill into law.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on the U.S. military, especially on the troops who were only supposed to be part time. The Pentagon has had to rely on the National Guard to help fill long deployments for two wars. As a result, the Guard has been pushing to get a seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Well, now Congress has voted to make that happen, despite the wishes of the chiefs themselves.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff likes to say that the military is one, big family - in which case, this has been an uncomfortable family squabble. Last month, all the members of the Joint Chiefs - the service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines - went to Capitol Hill and said that while they really respect the National Guard, they can't let them into their club.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Let me be clear: I am both an admirer and an advocate for the National Guard. Our entire reserve component makes an indispensable contribution to our national security.

MARTIN: That's Chairman Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer.

DEMPSEY: This said, I join the secretary of Defense and the service chiefs in counseling against making the chief of the National Guard a statutory member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is no compelling military need to support this historic change.

MARTIN: Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno took the same approach - honoring the service of the Guard, on the one hand...

GEN. RAY ODIERNO: With over 900 killed in action and more than 7,500 wounded, they are a critical component of the joint force, and connect us to Main Street America.

MARTIN: But...

ODIERNO: With all due respect to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, my good friend Craig McKinley, I am bound to communicate my explicit opposition to this post as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MARTIN: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Rachel Martin's reference to Craig McKinley's military rank is incorrect. McKinley is a general.] Admiral Craig McKinley is the man at the center of this debate. He says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Guard more valuable than ever. It can deploy in a time of war, and deal with security threats back home - natural disasters or even terrorism.

In 2008, the head of the Guard was made into a four-star position and invited to more top-level meetings. But McKinley says it's not enough.

GEN. CRAIG MCKINLEY: Much has changed since 2008 and yet, the chief of the National Guard Bureau still does not have an institutional position from which I can advise the president, the NSC, the Homeland Security Council and Congress on non-federalized, National Guard forces that are critical to homeland defense and civil support missions.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: For too long, they've been treated as kind of the second cousins.

MARTIN: That's Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

LEAHY: Even though they're required to do exactly the same things, have exactly the same kind of proficiency, they're not treated as they should be.

MARTIN: Leahy says more than 30 years ago, it was the same debate. Back then, it was about whether to give the Marine Corps a seat at the Joint Chiefs' table. Now, the Marine commandant is a permanent fixture.

Here's Senator Lindsey Graham at that same congressional hearing last month.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: That was a real fight back in 1978 - that if you put the commandant on, all hell is going to break loose; the Navy is going to run the world. Well, that did work. And I don't think the National Guard being in the room is going to change the world as we know it - only for the better.

MARTIN: The elevation of the National Guard to the Joint Chiefs was included in the Defense Authorization Bill signed by Congress last week. It's now on its way to the White House, and the president is expected to sign it into law.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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Correction Dec. 20, 2011

We incorrectly referred to Gen. Craig McKinley as an admiral.

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