Deployments winding down, but Iowa Guard faces new challenges

Orr also focuses on jobs for returning soldiers in annual 'Condition of the Guard' speech

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UPDATE: As the Iowa National Guard transitions from its largest deployment since World War II to what its commander called “limited global engagement,” it faces new challenges.

The 260 soldiers and airmen currently deployed is among the lowest number of Guard members deployed since the start of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, Major General Timothy Orr said in his annual Condition of the Guard address to the Iowa Legislature Thursday. Orr is the only state Guard commander to deliver such an address to a state legislature.

He thanked lawmakers and the Iowa public for their continuing support for the Iowa National Guard, and reported progress in some battles the Guard faces as military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Only 14 of the more than 130 Guard members who had been receiving medical care are still receiving treatment at military facilities, Orr said.

“Those deployments are not truly over until all of our men and women have returned back home to their families,” he said.

Orr reported progress on another front – finding jobs for returning Guard members.

A key to the Guard’s success in recruiting and retaining Iowa citizen-soldiers, Orr said, is the support of employers. Four-fifths of Guard members serve part-time and work full-time in Iowa businesses and government entities.

“Finding quality jobs with employers that understand and appreciate military service is key to the continued service and well-being of our men and women and their families,” Orr said.

When they return from deployment, most return to whatever they were doing before or seek new opportunities, he said. Some may have been unemployed or underemployed before deployment “or return to fund their positions eliminated due to the economic downturn,” the commander said.

“Whatever the reason, nearly 28 percent of our returning warriors were looking for work at the end of 2011” when many Guard members were returning from active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Orr said.

Through cooperative efforts between the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the Guard’s Job Connection Education Program, Iowa Workforce Development, Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, employers and business groups, the number of unemployed has been reduced from 28 percent to 6 percent today, Orr said.

The employer support and education programs are critical in recruiting and retention, Orr said. More than 1,400 Guard members received 100 percent paid tuition at Iowa universities and college “keeping our young people here in the state and providing them with a high-quality Iowa education.”

The drawdown of forces and the threat of budget sequestration also pose challenges, Orr said. Again, there have been successes. The Iowa Guard was successful in minimizing proposed personnel cuts from more than 400 to 32 for the 132nd Fighter Wing in Des Moines. It will transition from F-16 fighter aircraft into a reconnaissance group that will include piloting drone aircraft, an intelligence group and a cyber security mission.

Orr also pointed out that the Guard is doing its part to stimulate the Iowa economy, bringing in more than $370 million of federal funding, which is more than 97 percent of the department’s budget.

Also, Guard members pay more in state payroll, property and sales taxes than the funding provided by the state, Orr said.

In closing, he said that he hoped to leave lawmakers confident in the National Guard.

“We have executed every mission assigned, served our state here and at home and deployed wherever needed in a moment’s notice,” Orr said. “As the challenges of the past 10 years fade, we will face new challenges together.”

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