Last Monday, my three-year enlistment as a state reservist with the New York Guard came to an end. Apparently my leaving the service triggered a panicked reaction up the chain of command all the way to the Pentagon, because, the following day, the Army announced they are upping the age for non-prior enlistees in the Reserves and the National Guard from 36 to 39 in order to bring in more new soldiers. Coincidence?
An Army spokesperson, Major Elizabeth Robbins, explained the new policy: “Anecdotally, our recruiters have been telling us for years that we’ve had people who are otherwise qualified but over the age limit who have attempted to enlist,” Robbins said. “There are physically fit, health-conscious individuals who can make a positive contribution to our national defense.”
Three years ago (when the age limit was 36) I was one of those otherwise-qualified guys. I had spent a month down at Ground Zero immediately following the attack as a volunteer with the USO and the Red Cross. I spent the next few months not sleeping. Then I joined the New York Guard, the official state defense force that existed since World War I as a backup to the state’s National Guard. The idea was, if under extreme circumstances the state’s National Guard forces were somehow deployed overseas, a state force made up of volunteers ineligible for federal service (because, for example, they were over the age of enlistment) would be trained to augment and even take over National Guard missions stateside. A “reserve of the reserves.” In case of emergency–break glass.
I enlisted in March 2002. There was broken glass all over the place. The state’s National Guard forces were being deployed at an increasing pace, and the New York Guard would be increasingly utilized.
The post 9/11 NYG class of ‘02 (and, subsequently ‘03, ‘04, and ‘05) infused the mission with tremendous talent. An influx of men and women in their late ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s joined up, along with a lot of terrific kids in their ’20s who were ineligible for federal service because of minor health conditions. They included both those with prior military service (from every branch) and non-priors from all walks of life: cops and firemen and lawyers and dentists and ham radio operators and salesmen and nurses and truck drivers. Even an Emmy-award-winning comedian (actually, three Emmys–pointed out only for the sake of journalistic accuracy).
Terrific, dedicated guys and gals leaving their families and comfortable beds to go to a military base every month (and for a week or two in the summer), “sleep” in bunks built for boys half their age, march off into the mountains in snow (or intense heat), and get yelled at by sergeants. All on the cuff, too–state guard soldiers don’t get paid for their drills. They only receive payment if they are put on active state duty by the governor in an emergency. Learning, always learning, the soldier’s craft–how to work as a team to accomplish a mission, how to follow orders, and give them. How to lead.
I had many rewarding assignments. I spent several weekends working SRPs (soldier readiness processing), helping New York’s Fighting 69th Infantry Division and 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division prepare for overseas deployment. I served as volunteer cadre with the National Guard Counter Drug Cadet program, working with an outstanding Army sergeant (SFC George Gutierrez, now serving in Iraq) to help keep some great local kids off drugs. I bounced around as a reporter, writing articles for the Guard Times (the newspaper of the state’s military), interviewing privates (like PFC Cesar Lara, a young kid from the city who joined the NYG while he was still in high school) and two-star generals (like MG Thomas Maguire, the state’s adjudant general–nice guy).
Best of all, I served as a small part of a large WMD response team, trained to set up and operate a decontamination line in case something really, really bad happens. We trained hard and long, got a kick out of each other, and got very good at what we do. The team was activated for two weeks last fall during the ‘04 Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden. We spent the RNC flying over Manhattan in Blackhawks and Chinooks with full protective gear and gas masks–trained and ready to go. If something really, really bad had happened at the RNC, I would have been giving Dick Cheney a naked sponge bath. For that reason alone I am very grateful nothing really, really bad happened. (I’m sure the vice president would agree.)
The team is a joint National Guard/New York Guard operation, and a lot of the National Guard team members I worked with are over in Iraq now. Great guys, like Sgt. David George, who mumbles to himself, making little nasal comments a la W. C. Fields (“Ah, we’ve gotta set up the tents again. We’re having fun now…”). But the New York Guard soldiers are still here–trained and ready.
So Major Robbins is absolutely right. There’s a huge resource of experienced, patriotic, dedicated men and women out there who might be packing Prevacid and Lipitor in their ammo pouches, but are ready, willing, and able to contribute to the overall military mission. I’ve had the great honor of serving with quite a few of them the past three years in the New York Guard.
–Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A. Konig has written a novel, Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky. Konig is also an NRO contributor. He previously wrote for NRO about the New York Guard here.