Time to update our view of National Guard

U.S. Army Florida National Guard members of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team stand in formation during a deployment ceremony on January 5, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Story highlights

  • Wendy Anderson: National Guard is more than simply a critical component of our nation's fighting force
  • It is also the connective tissue bridging the civil-military divide, she says

Wendy R. Anderson is an adjunct Senior Fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a partner at Strong Eagle Media, and an Executive Producer on Citizen Soldier. From 2010-2014, she served in the Department of Defense, as Deputy Secretary Ash Carter's Chief of Staff and Secretary Chuck Hagel's deputy Chief of Staff. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Fifteen years ago today, on September 11, 2001, members of the Air National Guard leapt into action -- scrambling F-16s, putting their lives at risk, and serving as the vanguard between our country and its enemies. This should come as no surprise. The first American militia, founded in 1636, consistently lives up to the motto "Always Ready, Always There."

Wendy Anderson
And while most Americans are aware of the National Guard's valiant contributions on domestic missions -- its effective and rapid response to hurricanes, wildfires and floods -- perhaps the most significant contribution the Guard makes is on the battlefield. Indeed, the National Guard provides a critical link between local communities and American national security.
    Since before 9/11, and inside some Department of Defense circles, the National Guard has sometimes been derided, dismissed as the Army's "little brother" or "stepchild." As a senior Defense Department official from 2010-2014, I observed this firsthand. But the data and historical record during the War on Terror yield a different story.
    After 9/11 and the start of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department began relying on the Guard to supplement operations in those theaters. By 2005, the share of the effort carried by the Guard had increased so significantly that the Army National Guard made up half of all combat brigades in Iraq.
    Remarking on the commitment of the National Guard in these years, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey declared in 2011 that "every Guard brigade has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan" at least once, and that more than 300,000 members of the Guard had deployed in total -- a number that has only increased since.
    In addition to complementing active duty units in combat, the Guard often played a unique role on the battlefield. National Guard task forces -- including engineer route-clearance and combat aviation units -- provided support to special operations and combat arms units overseas, increasing total force mission success. The contribution of the Guard since 9/11 has been indispensable to the Defense Department. Furthermore, about one in 10 service members killed in action in that time was a Guard member. Between September 11, 2001, and March 2016, 803 Guard members -- men and women from all 54 states, territories, and DC, made the ultimate sacrifice.
    At 42.6% of the total selected reserve, the Army National Guard represents both the largest segment of the nation's "citizen soldiers," but also a diverse cross section of the Americans who serve, and whose families serve alongside them. For example, 40% of the ANG is married, and almost 40% have children. In addition, in 2014, 15.9% of the Selected Reserve ANG was female, compared to 13.9% in the active duty Army. Meanwhile, minority members represent 21.7% of the total ANG, while more than 50% are 25 or younger.
    With all this in mind, and given the centrality of the Guard to the post-9/11 war effort, it is time to update our views of it. We have learned that it is a 21st-century force whose demographics increasingly reflect our country, and whose soldiers and airmen -- after 15 years of war -- perform as well as those on active duty.
    For those who haven't had the privilege of working with the Guard, the recently released film Citizen Soldier, made by our team at Strong Eagle Media, provides a firsthand view of the deployment of the Oklahoma Army National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan in 2011. Using real combat footage from multiple helmet cams, these citizen soldiers provide an intimate look into the horrors and chaos of combat and tell the story of every Guard unit deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. They are the 21st century Guard.
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    Importantly, we have also learned that the National Guard is more than simply a critical component of our nation's fighting force -- it is also the connective tissue bridging the civil-military divide. Integral members of communities across America assume the mantle of service through the Guard; from your child's teacher to your next-door neighbor, the Guard provides new perspectives and unique skills gained through a diversity of experiences that complement the active force. The sacrifices paid by the reserve component echo throughout America's communities, illustrating the duty and service assumed by the nation's oldest fighting force.
    We have learned many lessons in recent years, but one of the most poignant is this: Although Americans are tired of the politics surrounding the wars, they want to know more about our troops and their inspiring stories of service. Certainly, our citizen soldiers -- all 2.8 million Americans who have deployed since 9/11 -- provide a compelling model of citizenship we should all aspire to emulate.