Whenever a member of the Idaho National Guard is killed or badly wounded in Iraq, one of the first to know is Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), informed by the Pentagon hours before the soldier's family. When a soldier is buried back home, Kempthorne often participates in the funeral services, knowing that his remarks may be e-mailed back to the troops in Iraq before the day is done.
This role has been thrust on Kempthorne and other governors by the length of the war in Iraq and the heavy deployment of National Guard forces, and it is an emotionally taxing role for which few governors were prepared. Kempthorne calls his preparation for military funerals "the most somber and introspective moment" he experiences as governor, and he notes that not since the Civil War has there been such state identification with the military.
Just how much things have changed for governors since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was clear Monday when military and security issues took center stage on the final day of the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. Governors held closed-door discussions with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau; and Gordon H. Mansfield, deputy secretary of veterans affairs.
The governors raised with Chertoff their concerns about the cost and complexity of implementing a new law that will require states to turn driver's licenses into national identity cards. They discussed with Blum and Mansfield issues of Guard deployments, equipment and training and how they can jointly help military personnel make the transition to civilian life.
The Pentagon's reliance on Guard and reserve forces has brought the war home to small communities, straining local economies and disrupting families and businesses. While praising the spirit and patriotism of their Guard and reserve units, governors have begun to question the policies that have led to multiple deployments of some units, charging that the Iraq war threatens to leave states unprotected against natural disasters and to make retention more difficult.
"I think all governors right now are worried about the long-term effects of long deployments and frequent deployments on recruiting and retention," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). "We talk about it a lot when we get together. It's a major topic of concern. We understand it's become part of military necessity. It's not something you change immediately. But in the long term, I think our policy has got to be rethought."
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), worried about the prospect of forest fires this summer, said that he urged the Pentagon months ago to adjust deployment schedules to ensure that his state had an adequate contingent available but that his concerns were brushed aside.
As a result, he said, Montana will have about 1,200 troops available for front-line firefighting, compared with about 1,700 in 2000. The state also will go without most of the Apache helicopters it uses to suppress fires, because most of them are in Iraq. "They certainly didn't think through that this is a partnership with the states," Schweitzer said.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said recruitment and retention rates in the Minnesota National Guard remain high, but he said the state has approved new incentives to help keep those rates up and said other changes may be necessary, including fixed limits on the amount of time Guard personnel are deployed out of state.
"To ask citizen soldiers to serve as frequently and as intensely as we're asking our Guard to do is a long-term concern," he said. "There's going to have to be some accommodation to the Guard so that we don't indefinitely ask them to serve at this level of intensity."
Many states have taken steps to provide more benefits to Guard personnel. New Mexico was the first state to provide $250,000 in life insurance for all guardsmen. More than 30 states have enacted similar programs. New Mexico also allows citizens to divert some of their income tax payments directly to Guard families.
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) said governors should have a larger voice in deployment decisions. "In a small state like mine, you take all the guardsmen out, it hurts our ability to fight forest fires all the time," he said. "I just think there should be a consultative procedure that we're clear on whose responsibilities are what."
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) has challenged the Pentagon over the Base Realignment and Closure commission's decision to deactivate a National Guard unit in his state and filed suit last week to block it, asserting that the Pentagon cannot act without the approval of a state's governor.
On homeland security, governors pressed Chertoff on the Real ID Act, saying state motor vehicle offices are not equipped to produce the kind of identification cards envisioned.
Huckabee called the program a "very ill-conceived and hastily presented approach that will prove disastrous" to the states. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said Congress is "not even in the ballpark" in terms of what it will cost states to implement the ID program. Chertoff, speaking with reporters, pledged cooperation with the governors but did not address cost issues.
The burdens of National Guard deployments have fallen unevenly, with some governors saying they still have adequate forces in the event of natural disasters. They praised the Guard's Blum for working to stick to an agreement not to deploy more than half of any state's Guard personnel.
But the post-Sept. 11 era has proved a daily reminder to governors of responsibilities that have been taxing both to their state treasuries and to their own emotions. "This has brought a dramatic change, a redefining in this moment in time, of our responsibilities," Kempthorne said.