Washington — They are the oldest component of the United States' armed forces the nation's first citizen-militia known for their rapid-response role in battling floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and other domestic disasters.
But over the last decade, the National Guard has increased another of its responsibilities: fighting alongside other U.S. troops overseas and participating in extended foreign peace-keeping deployments.
The expanded mission is a source of pride for many Guard members, who say they are increasingly apprehensive about efforts by policy-makers and politicians to make them forgo foreign entanglements and stick to stateside assignments.
Their anxiety became more acute last week, when a federal commission recommended that the Army National Guard broaden its domestic mission by reorganizing, training and equipping itself to respond to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
The congressionally appointed panel, led by former Sens. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Gary Hart, D-Colo., proposed creating a Cabinet-level "homeland security agency" to coordinate domestic counterterrorism warning that an attack involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons is likely within the next 25 years.
It would be a significant change for the 350,000-strong Army Guard. National Guardsmen are unique among U.S. military forces because they have two commanders in chief, answering to state governors when asked to assist during major emergencies, and to the president during times of global conflict.
More than 138,000 guardsmen were mobilized for Korea, and there were smaller foreign missions during the Berlin airlift and Vietnam. Members of the Guard also have been called to serve during numerous strikes and riots at home. The Persian Gulf War marked a turning point. More than 63,000 Army Guardsmen were called to serve in Operation Desert Storm. The expanded deployments continued after the conflict ended; Guard units have taken part in peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yugoslavia. Currently, 3,200 Army and 2,955 Air Guardsmen are stationed in more than 20 countries.
While some military analysts see homeland defense as a better fit for the National Guard, they acknowledge it is likely to meet with considerable internal opposition.
"There will be a resistance from everyone with this proposal," predicted Mike Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"The politics is the problem. Stripping them down and focusing them more, making them less warriors and more domestic disaster relief ... is harder on the ego. It is not necessarily why people join the Guard."