Over the past few years, Americans have witnessed the inability of the federal and state governments to effectively respond to catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and the wildfires that ravaged parts of Southern California. The systems and institutions that previously were believed capable of responding to major natural disasters and/or other mass-casualty incidents such as a terrorist attack simply lacked the human and material resources and preparedness training required to meet the needs of a large number of citizens in distress.
The U.S. National Guard – which for the past five years has been heavily supplementing the nation’s active-duty armed forces during their protracted engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan – has been transformed from its original purpose as a strategic reserve to an operational reserve. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, close to 80 percent of the 350,000 men-and-women-strong Army National Guard has been mobilized and deployed overseas, many units several times. The foreseeable future seems likely to be no different, given the myriad challenges that face the U.S. military in meeting contingencies in other areas of the world. This transformation of the National Guard to an active-duty supplemental force has greatly diminished its ability to protect Americans at home.
To help shoulder the homeland-defense burden and fulfill the government’s obligation to protect American citizens, at home, in the event of a major emergency, the president and state governors, it is hereby suggested, should establish a Home Guard force in each state. The Home Guard would be a non-deployable corps of well trained units of skilled volunteers, would fall both administratively and operationally under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and would be responsible for duties historically carried out during emergency situations by the National Guard. The volunteers filling the ranks of the Home Guard – veterans of the nation’s armed forces, medical personnel, construction workers, firemen, and police officers, among others – would have to possess (and/or rapidly develop) the skills critical to responding to homeland disaster situations.
Following Through on a Long-Awaited Challenge
There would be a number of intangible benefits resulting from the establishment of a Home Guard, the first and most important of which might be that this new domestic preparedness force would provide another opportunity for Americans to serve their country. There already are models of the Home Guard in 23 states. These 23 state organizations should be federally funded, and expanded to include the remaining 27 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the president should request that Congress increase the budget of the Department of Homeland Security by approximately $10 billion – i.e., roughly the cost of one month of operations in Iraq.
Future Home Guard appropriations totals could be determined later, and in more specific detail, by the administration and Congress, but $10 billion probably would be enough to cover start-up costs. Meanwhile, there would be huge but intangible benefits derived from the reduction in the wear and tear on the National Guard, which for at least a few years might have to continue serving as a supplemental force in overseas assignments, but without the stress of having to shoulder a major share of the homeland-defense burden at the same time.
In 2002, President Bush issued a call for Americans to help their country by suggesting that all U.S. citizens should serve the equivalent of two years of their lives in what he called a “Freedom Corps.” However, he failed to follow through with an actual legislative proposal, and Congress itself did not follow through on the president’s imaginative suggestion. The result has been that six years later the American people are still woefully underprepared to respond timely or adequately to a natural or manmade domestic disaster.
It is extremely important, however, that the actions necessary to implement the president’s proposal be taken as soon as possible and that a Home Guard of some type be both authorized and funded. The American people not only deserve it, they also need it, and would support it. The United States cannot let another catastrophic event such as Hurricane Katrina occur before doing what is clearly necessary – i.e., create a Home Guard.
The numerous threats to the safety and wellbeing of American citizens today could come not only from overseas; they also could be launched from U.S. soil in the form of a domestic chemical or biological attack. Whatever the event or incident, Americans in all regions of the county must be well prepared, well equipped, and well organized to meet the challenges facing them – challenges that, as a nation, the United States could successfully meet and defeat. But not until some truly dramatic changes are made in the nation’s current homeland-security posture.