FORT RUCKER, Ala. – The National Guard’s top leader talked with Army aviators Tuesday about how the Guard has evolved over the past four decades and what the future holds.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the 29th chief of the National Guard Bureau, spoke to senior aviation leaders and junior Guard aviation students in separate engagements at the home of Army aviation – which celebrates its 40th year as a branch this year.
“Our nation has changed in the past 40 years,” Hokanson said to the Army Senior Aviation Leader Forum. “As much as our Army has changed, as much as aviation has changed, the National Guard has changed so much. It has really transformed.”
The Army Guard has aviation assets, capabilities and facilities in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia and is equipped with more than 1,400 rotary-wing aircraft across 10 airframes and 57 fixed-wing aircraft.
“There used to be the perception of the National Guard as a part-time force, you know, one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer,” said Hokanson, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and helicopter pilot by trade. “I’ll admit it, 40 years ago, I didn’t really think about the National Guard because I didn’t know much about it.”
The National Guard responded in the first hours after the attacks of 9/11 and supported the Global War on Terror to the final hours in Afghanistan. Hokanson said the past 20 years of combat had hardened the Guard into today’s sharper and more capable organization.
“We are no longer a strategic reserve,” he said. “We are an operational force that is manned, trained and equipped to fight our nation’s wars.
“At the same time, he added, “we have the great honor and responsibility to respond to emergencies in the places we call home. We may be fighting wildfires, responding in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, or rescuing an injured hiker at the top of a cold mountain.”
The CNGB said Guardsmen are capable of these lifesaving tasks because of their combat equipment and training coupled with “unmatched locality.”
“There are Guardsmen in nearly every ZIP code,” he said. “Whenever disaster strikes, the National Guard is among the first to respond because no matter where you are in the United States, we’re already there.”
Within the Army National Guard, there are six security and support aviation battalions; 10 aviation support battalions; five theater aviation sustainment maintenance groups; and 13 general support aviation battalions.
Two theater brigade headquarters are in Kentucky and North Carolina. Eight combat aviation brigade headquarters are in Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota and Missouri.
The Army National Guard also has 30 tactical unmanned aircraft systems platoons, two fixed-wing theater aviation battalions, four airfield operations battalions and one theater aviation operations group.
“National Guard Army Aviation is big,” Hokanson told the forum. “It’s widespread. It’s capable. And, considering the National Guard is 20% of the Joint Force, it’s indispensable to the National Defense Strategy. The Joint Force cannot succeed without the National Guard.”
Hokanson added that the National Guard can’t succeed without its people. He met with Guard aviation students during his visit to Fort Rucker.
“I would argue that some of the best pilots we have are the people who came right out of flight school,” Hokanson told them. “Because when you’re right out of flight school, you’ve been doing this nonstop, six months, nine months and in some cases a year, and you’ve got your emergency procedures memorized.”
Hokanson earned his pilot wings at Fort Rucker in 1987. He is rated as a Master Army Aviator, logging nearly 3,000 flight hours with 50 hours of combat flight in numerous helicopters.
“There are some amazing things you are going to do and things you’re going to see that you can’t even dream of right now,” he said. “There’s also a great responsibility that comes with that. You’ve got to be professional and maintain your capabilities. You must be safe.
“Those experiences are going to make a huge difference,” he added. “You have to learn from them to make you a better pilot. It may also save your life.”