State security

State defense forces—who report directly to governors—could occupy a unique place in homeland security efforts.

America was at war, U.S. troops were streaming overseas, and at home, fears of an enemy attack were rising. But with the National Guard mobilized and heavily committed abroad on the president's orders, state governors had few forces left. Their solution: create a new kind of military organization, one controlled solely by the states, tasked solely to defend the homeland.

The year was 1917. The threat was German saboteurs, not Qaeda terrorists. But many of the "state defense forces" (also called state guards or state militias) that were created during World War I and World War II survive today. Revived in the 1980s as part of President Reagan's defense buildup, these forces again lost relevance in a post-Cold War world in which no one expected another total war that would use up the National Guard and require a backup force.

Then came September 11, 2001. Eighty-four years after it was created to stand watch over the aqueducts supplying New York City, the New York State Guard found itself rallying for a homeland security mission once again. The first responders, of course, were the city's firefighters and police, backed up by the 17,000 troops of the New York National Guard-a force almost entirely funded by the federal government and subject to call-up for presidential missions. But the third line of defense was the New York State Guard, a purely state-funded and state-controlled auxiliary force composed of about a thousand volunteers, many of them older military veterans, who buy their own uniforms and gear, and who train, unpaid, on their own time. Yet unlike private volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross, the State Guard is an official agency of the governor, legally subject to military discipline. In the aftermath of 9/11, its members sorted and transported tons of donated goods, clearing out truckloads of well-intended donations that were literally clogging Manhattan streets.

These defense forces largely labor in obscurity. Even some experts on the National Guard have never heard of them. Indeed, most of these state-controlled forces have faded away since the 1980s, and many that remain are little more than social clubs, "kind of like the Kiwanis with guns," in the words of one retired Army officer.

But in a few places-notably Georgia, New York, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia-these volunteers form an effective auxiliary to the paid part-timers of the National Guard. A few experts, such as retired Army Col. John Brinkerhoff, who was Reagan's civil-defense director, advocate expanding these groups for homeland defense missions, including guarding facilities, securing perimeters around disaster areas or quarantine zones, and providing logistics and communications services. And since September 11, the state guards have been growing.

Just outside Washington, for instance, the Virginia Defense Force has nearly doubled since 9/11, from 390 members to 696 as of June 1. And in Georgia, "we had more than 500 people who responded" to a radio news item about the state guard, said Byers Coleman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is now a colonel in the Georgia Defense Force. The Georgia force doubled from just under 300 members on September 10 to more than 600 today. "Airline captains, Ph.D. chemists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, housewives.... There are a lot of people out there who want to do something," Coleman said. "The president came out and said, `We want people to volunteer.' [Well,] we've got forces in being to be a nucleus" for those volunteers.

The influx is all the more impressive since the state defense forces have no funds to recruit or advertise. And they have gotten next to no news coverage, in sharp contrast to volunteer initiatives touted by President Bush, such as the new Citizen Corps. Little-known and even less well-understood, the state defense forces spend a great deal of energy explaining what they are not: gun-toting, anti-government, militiamen wackos. In fact, the forces report to their state's National Guard command, and ultimately to the governor. So eager are defense force leaders to emphasize their status as an arm of government that one recent State Guard Association newsletter proudly reproduces an irate and ungrammatical letter denouncing them as lackeys of the "tyranny ... we now have in the White House."

That said, the sudden revival of the defense forces under Reagan did attract everyone from white supremacists to Rambo wanna-bes. "It got out of control," recalled Lawrence Korb, who was assistant Defense secretary for manpower under Reagan. "They were arming people who shouldn't have been armed."

No more, insist defense force leaders. "In 1989, there was a lot of emphasis on weapons," said the Virginia Defense Force commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Dechert, who is a retired National Guard brigadier general appointed to reform the force that year. Dechert purged most of the force's 2,000 on-paper members, and, he emphasized, "we did away with all types of weapons training." Today, defense force members in Virginia, Ohio, and most other states, even if they own weapons, are required to go about unarmed while on duty.

Most of the time, that duty is only marginally military. Since the 1989 reforms, the Virginia Defense Force's main mission has been at the annual Winchester Apple Blossom Festival, helping local police direct hundreds of thousands of tourists. Elsewhere around the country, the state forces, who usually wear military-style uniforms, stiffen security at county fairs, provide honor guards at veterans' funerals, and perform similar community services (the Puerto Rico State Guard even provides dental care in impoverished areas). The Texas State Guard estimates that it provides volunteers for more than 125 events a year, saving local authorities up to half a million dollars annually.

But the defense forces still perform the mission for which they were created, acting as a backstop to the National Guard. They help the mobilized guardsmen get through their paperwork and then they support the Guard members' families while they're gone. They volunteer their civilian skills to beef up Guard operations ranging from public affairs to the chaplain corps to nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. And some state forces provide more-ambitious support, especially since September 11. Georgia and Tennessee defense force troops, for example, have helped guard military bases. One Virginia Defense Force member flew his small private plane in simulated kamikaze runs so that National Guard troops could practice shooting down a terrorist.

But the most important need in the post-9/11 world is also the most controversial: emergency response. Some defense forces provide extra manpower in National Guard command posts during natural disasters. During the blizzard of 1996, members of the New York and Virginia defense forces actually drove supplies to the snowbound, or evacuated them, in their personal four-wheel-drive trucks.

But such fieldwork is rare. It's one thing for the National Guard to let the defense forces help with paperwork back at the armory. It's quite another to send them out into the rubble to find survivors. Defense force members are generally older than National Guard troops, they train less often, and they have only the equipment they provide themselves. National Guard commanders are reluctant to let the state defense forces do too much. Even directing traffic at a county fair can lead to accidents, injuries, and costly lawsuits; imagine if a defense force unit botched a response to a natural disaster. The nightmare for a National Guard commander is that uniformed amateurs will rush to the rescue only to get themselves or civilians hurt.

In many states, what results is a tug-of-war between defense forces seeking more real-world missions and National Guard leaders who want to give them as few chances as possible to mess things up. When a freak tornado flattened La Plata, Md., in April, several dozen Maryland Defense Force members, many with medical or search-and-rescue training, reported to the local armory to help. No orders ever came. The next morning, with the town in ruins, the volunteers were told: We don't need you; just go home. Today, the Maryland Defense Force seems set permanently on "pause," with routine training and even community service missions curtailed.

Why the cutbacks? "All of us on the senior level certainly applaud the volunteerism of the members of the Maryland Defense Force," said Maryland National Guard spokesman Col. Howard Freedlander. "We're all trying to determine what an appropriate mission is for this organization.... There's really a lack of clarity."

Clearly, though, La Plata wasn't it. "It's important to understand that in La Plata, the governor chose not to mobilize the Maryland National Guard," which would include the state defense force, Freedlander emphasized. "However much we would want to [help], we simply can't without the declaration of a state emergency."

That need for a formal declaration may seem like a technicality to a civilian, but the requirement cuts to the core of the American military ethic: obedience to the civilian authority-right or wrong. And that principle, experts say, has to be at the heart of the defense forces too.

Volunteer enthusiasm makes the defense forces work. But there are plenty of worthy volunteer groups that can respond to a disaster or terrorist attack. What makes the defense forces unique is their legal status as an arm of state government, under military discipline. They combine the benefits of community groups and the military, said George Foresman, a homeland security adviser to Virginia's governor: "They're an all-volunteer force, but they've got a strong command-and-control accountability system."

Unlike independent organizations such as the Red Cross, or hybrid state/federal forces such as the National Guard, or federally organized volunteers such as Citizen Corps, the defense forces belong solely to their state. They are the governor's own. It is that special status that could make them a unique tool in the fight to secure the U.S. homeland.