Wednesday, February 20, 2008
N.M. National Guard Officials Say Troops Well-Trained Here
By Sue Major Holmes/
The New Mexico National Guard remains short on equipment, but spokesmen say troops here are better trained than a national report on the readiness of the Guard and Reserves would indicate.
The independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves concluded that even fewer Army National Guard units are combat-ready today than were a year ago. The Jan. 31 report said the nation "does not have sufficient trained, ready forces available'' to respond to a chemical, biological or nuclear weapons incident.
New Mexico Guard commanders don't agree with that assessment for this state, said Guard spokesman Tom Koch.
"We think we have sufficient trained ready forces available and we've proved it since 9/11,'' he said.
The commission recommended that the Defense Department use the nation's citizen soldiers to create a fully trained and equipped operational force that would be readily available to defend the nation, respond to crises and supplement active duty troops in combat.
"There's a lot of things in the pipeline, but in the world we live in, you're either ready or you're not,'' commission Chairman Arnold Punaro told The Associated Press.
Koch said every one of the roughly 4,000 members of the New Mexico Army and Air Guard takes the required minimum of eight hours of chemical, nuclear and biological training annually.
"All the units invariably have more than that,'' he said.
In addition, New Mexico Guard members train with first-responders all over the state although the Guard is not considered a first responder.
New Mexico has one of 32 National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Teams. The 64th WMD/CST consists of 22 full-time Guardsmen whose duties include detecting and decontaminating nuclear, biological and chemical attacks; emergency communications; and coordinating civilian and military operations.
"We're on call 24-7,'' said the unit's commander, Lt. Col. Bill Shuert. The eight-year-old team has equipment not available to local agencies for example, Shuert said, one specialized machine can identify about 200,000 different substances.
"In reality, we may not know what the incident is. Chemical, biological, nuclear, high-yield explosives that doesn't capture the reality of what we could be responding to,'' he said.
The team conducts about 30 exercises a year, well above the requirement of one per month. It goes to all parts of the state, particularly where "there are major thoroughfares, rail, those types of systems,'' Shuert said. It also trains with Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
The team offers continuity and training to local emergency management and first responders, and for a backup force, it has the entire New Mexico National Guard, Shuert said.
"There's a lot to brag about with this team,'' he said. "It's high tempo but very professional. The amount these guys have to know and be able to respond to is incredible. We're well prepared, I think.''
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, New Mexico Guard troops have served in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo, Cuba; and other locations and have been deployed along the state's southern border. The governor also calls out the Guard in emergencies such as last winter's severe snowstorms and storms in Taos and Rio Arriba counties early this month.
Guard units everywhere "have been asked to do more and more and more,'' said Maj. Ken Nava, another spokesman for the New Mexico Guard.
"The National Guard is no longer this strategic reserve we thought of in the Cold War,'' he said. "We're continually being called up, and in the foreseeable future that's not going to change.''
The commission's report detailed a shortfall of about $48 billion for Guard equipment nationwide as of 2007. Army Guard units in more than half the states had less than half the equipment they need.
The Government Accountability Office said last year New Mexico's Guard had only 33.8 percent of the dual-use equipment it needed as of November 2006 the lowest level in the nation. Dual use means equipment authorized for war missions, but which also could respond to domestic emergencies.
Nava had no current figure but said the state's percentage of equipment was roughly the same as the previous year.
"Our equipment issues have not been resolved,'' he said. "It's getting better, but it's nowhere near where it needs to be.''
New Mexico Guard officials and the state's congressional delegation complained last year that it took three years to get replacement trucks for one company that had to leave its equipment in Iraq after deployment, and that New Mexico Guard units overseas had to obtain waivers to use their helicopters because those copters didn't meet requirements.
Nava said a New Mexico National Guard engineering unit which uses heavy equipment to build or clear roads doesn't have all the dump trucks it's authorized equipment that could have been used when the Guard was called after tornadoes in eastern New Mexico last March.
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