Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
If you’re not familiar with New Mexico’s State Defense Force, the all-volunteer unarmed component of the Department of Military Affairs, you’re not alone.
There are fewer than 50 members and they have been underused in recent years.
That’s about to change.
The newly appointed commander of the little-known State Defense Force says his mission is to revitalize the organization and make it as recognizable as its larger cohorts – the National Guard and Civil Air Patrol.
Those entities, along with the New Mexico Youth Challenge Academy for at-risk teens, are the four components that fall under the purview of the New Mexico Department of Military Affairs, said Brig. Gen. David Torres, who was appointed earlier this summer to head the State Defense Force.
Although the defense force has had varied missions in the past – ranging from running temporary shelters during disasters to participating in military funerals and chaplaincy – Torres said it has been underused for several years. It’s his job to re-establish the defense force, formalize its missions and structure, and recruit enough volunteers to fill its ranks.
Torres, who has 27 years in the military, both active duty and with the Air National Guard, is well suited to the challenge, said Maj. Gen. Andy Salas, adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard.
After serving as crew chief for the A-7 Corsair attack jet and working on C-130 Hercules cargo planes, Torres became a commissioned officer and squadron commander, Salas said. Torres later served as senior military adviser for the National Guard to the NATO commander in Kosovo.
Since retiring in 2000, Torres has been doing humanitarian relief work all over the world with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse. Earlier this summer, he was in Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization that provides aid to people in need as a fundamental part of its missionary work.
“We were there setting up treatment centers for patients with Ebola,” Torres said in an interview last month. “I think I’m one of two people who made it back to the United State without any press,” he quipped.
Torres has responded to earthquakes in China and Haiti, refugee migrations in South Sudan and Pakistan, and hurricanes in the Philippines – making him intimately familiar with disaster relief.
New emphasis on the SDF
“What we’re trying to do is re-establish, in each of the major geographical regions of the state, a State Defense Force capability that would be able to do emergency relief, military funeral honors and things of that nature,” said Brig. Gen. Juan Griego, the state Guard’s deputy adjutant general.
The all-volunteer defense force is, by statute, an unarmed component of the Department of Military Affairs and cannot be federalized, Griego said. It receives no government funding, but is authorized to carry out missions within the state. The current members of the State Defense Force can re-apply once the revamped defense force is established, he said.
The defense force operates in the framework of the National Guard, and wears similar uniforms while serving, Griego said.
“Ideally, we’d like to have a couple hundred SDF members across the state,” he said.
“We’re in the process of creating a formalized structure, pulling in the pieces we need to start rebuilding the organization,” Torres said. “We need to formalize recruitment and standards. … We need to create the ‘wiring diagram’ for how we are going to operate. We have people working on that now.”
Once those steps are completed, recruitment will begin, he said.
Meanwhile, Torres is networking with officials throughout the state, discussing potential missions and “telling people that the SDF exists, that we will be available and that we can be relevant.”
All three generals readily admit that shrinking defense budgets and reductions in the number of active-duty military personnel are a key reason the NMNG is focusing on rebuilding the State Defense Force.
Once established, the SDF can fill roles typically handled by National Guardsmen, freeing full-time and part-time Guard personnel to concentrate on their war-fighting capabilities, they said.
“Our target population is people who are retired, people with a background in disaster relief or humanitarian aid, people with medical experience,” Torres said, “Essentially, we’re looking for anyone who has skills that they want to make available to the state.”
Recently separated veterans are one resource, he said, but because there are no age or physical requirements for volunteers, anyone can apply for the SDF.
“An SDF volunteer doesn’t have to be someone with extraordinary technical skill, they can be plumbers, carpenters, people with the ability to rebuild,” he said.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity here, not only for the state, but for people who want to be part of something important,” he said. “People want to help, and we want to tap into that.”