The dangers of D.C.'s commuter National Guard
During the chaotic commute of Jan. 26, major thoroughfares throughout the District became paralyzed with anxious commuters trying to get home. According to several reports, it took as long as five hours for some commuters merely to make the trip along 16th Street NW from downtown to Silver Spring. If it had been called in, the D.C. National Guard could have provided trained personnel to assist with keeping traffic moving and helping citizens in distress. Unfortunately, D.C.’s National Guard force is primarily comprised of non-District residents, and many of these citizen-soldiers and airmen would have been unable to respond even if they had been called into service.
According to 2008 statistics compiled by the National Guard Association of D.C., D.C. residents make up only around 20 percent of the D.C. Army National Guard and a mere 4 percent of the D.C. Air National Guard. Last week’s storm should serve as a wake-up call for local leaders and demonstrate the inherent risk in having such a small percentage of the D.C. Guard’s manpower physically located in the city during an emergency.
Many emergencies occur without notice. Is it reasonable to assume that the nearly 87 percent of D.C. Guard members who live outside the District could safely report for duty in a timely manner if needed?
As an Army Reserve officer and a D.C. resident, it appears to me that the D.C. National Guard has been AWOL from much of the civic life of the District it serves. I watch for signs of its presence, and other than the 2009 presidential inauguration and a lone Humvee I spotted on 18th Street NW during last year’s “snowmageddon,” I have never seen the D.C. Guard out and about in the community, nor have I encountered a public outreach or recruiting event. The D.C. Guard was nowhere to be seen at last year’s Adams Morgan Day, Columbia Heights Day or Mount Pleasant Day community festivals (I looked). Despite the District having every type of banquet venue imaginable, the D.C. Guard even held its 2010 military ball in Greenbelt. What a missed opportunity for Guard leadership to showcase its “Capital Guardians” in their finery to the citizens they serve.
If nothing else, the disastrous Jan. 26 commute demonstrates the very real risk of outsourcing the rewards and challenges of National Guard service to the citizens of surrounding states. The D.C. Guard must embrace the community it serves and conduct meaningful outreach and, yes, appropriate recruiting efforts to all populations and neighborhoods within the District. It is in everyone’s interest to have a cadre of trained, local responders to augment D.C. government agencies in a time of emergency.
The writer is a captain in the Army Reserve.
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