It’s been six years since the guard completed its last major deployment and 1,500 men and women returned from Afghanistan.
After decades of mostly stateside disaster relief duty, the Vermont Army National Guard was sent to war in the years following 9/11.
Guard soldiers were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and 14 died during those deployments.
While the blotchy green camouflage-painted trucks driven by guard members on training exercises remain a familiar sight, Adjutant General Steven Cray says much about the guard has changed since 9/11.
“Young men and women that join the Army National Guard today, and the Air Guard as well, know and expect they’re going to be deployed, utilized more so than they ever were and certainly more [than] before 9/11. I think that’s a new reality,” Cray says.
That reality involves more time spent training, which means more days away from jobs and families.
The Vermont Guard is also part of a pilot program pairing Army guard units with active duty divisions. Beginning last summer, the Vermont guard's 86th Brigade started working with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York.
"The thought being that we share resources and training time to increase the overall readiness," Cray says.
The new reality also includes a more distinct possibility that guard members could be deployed.
“The Army is in a five-year training cycle,” says Cray. “Our next opportunity to be available to deploy or do a mission for the United States will be in 2020. We don’t have any sense that there is a deployment coming, but I want to make sure that families and soldiers and employers understand just that there could be.”
Recruitment has been an issue for the Vermont Army Guard.
The possibility of deployment and more time spent training than in the past may discourage some people from joining, although Cray thinks it has more to do with a limited pool of young people in Vermont.
The guard did not meet its recruitment numbers for 2015.
“We’re continuing to struggle to meet our in-strength goals. We need to figure out new ways to incentivize and recruit men and women to serve,” he says.
About 30 percent of the soldiers who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan remain in the guard.
The steady turnover means the Army guard needs about 30 new members each month. To help meet recruitment goals Cray is asking the state to offer guard members free tuition to state colleges.
“In fact, we’re the only state in New England that doesn’t offer this,” he says. Cray says legislators and the administration seem open to the idea.
Nationally, there have been cuts in guard numbers and budgets. But Cray says the Vermont guard budget remains close to where it was during the deployments, at roughly $330 million. The state’s share amounts to about $4 million.
Today there are 2,600 members of the Vermont Army Guard, several hundred fewer than during the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not all overseas deployments have been to war zones. Since 1995, the guard has had a partnership with Macedonia that has involved Vermonters traveling there.
Army guard members have gone to the western African nation of Senegal to help create a training center to teach soldiers how to remove land mines, which have killed scores of civilians.
The guard has also created its own training site at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho to teach other branches of the military how to remove land mines.
The Adjutant General is elected to a two-year term by the Legislature. Cray’s second term ends in February and he says he’ll ask lawmakers to reappoint him to the post.