National Guard: A Way of Life in Many Alabama Towns With AM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ When Sgt. Maj. William Weston joined the Alabama National Guard more than 27 years ago, it seemed as natural as ... waving the American flag.
″I lived in a small town that was very much Guard-oriented,″ said Weston, a native of Brundidge, population 3,200. ″At the time I joined, my uncle was the company commander. It was the thing to do back then.″
As the nation’s Guard and reserves play a major role in America’s military response to the Mideast crisis, the call-up is hitting home.
Alabama, with a population of about 4 million, has the largest Army National Guard of any state, with 21,700 members. Sgt. Norman Arnold, a Guard spokesman, said the next largest state force is Texas, with 21,400, followed by California, with 21,200. The two states both trail Alabama even though Texas has more than four times as many residents and California more than seven times, according to preliminary 1990 census figures.
There also are 3,200 members of the Alabama Air National Guard, making the total strength almost 25,000 men and women, Arnold said.
About 900 members from several Alabama Army Guard and Air Guard units have been activated since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2. But the only Alabama guardsmen sent to Saudi Arabia so far are about 90 members of the 1241st Postal AG Company from Montgomery.
Weston, who has been a member of the 31st Area Support Group in Montgomery since 1972, recalls how prominent the Guard was - and still is - in small towns like Brundidge, about 60 miles south of Alabama’s capital city.
″In many cases, the National Guard armory is the center of town,″ he said, where dances, reunions and proms are held. ″In the small towns, we’re the only military.″
Guardsmen usually sign up for six-year hitches and many re-enlist. Weston estimated that at least half of the soldiers in the 31st Group have more than 20 years of service.
″The day I joined up, there was six of us. We were all schoolmates. We joined and went off to basic training together,″ he said. ″Of the six who joined with me, I know at least three of them are still in the Guard.″
They go through basic training along with regular soldiers, then join the unit of their choice, perhaps in their hometown or one that specializes in a skill that will be useful in the civilian world. After that, guardsmen are required to participate in a 15-day training session each year, in addition to one weekend of duty each month.
″It’s more tradition than anything else,″ said Col. Kenneth A. Blackmon, commander of the 31st. ″We have a lot of fathers and sons. I’ve got two sons in the National Guard. As soon as they were of age, they joined up.″
In Blackmon’s case, the Guard helped pay for his sons to attend college - a luxury for many families in a state that ranks 43rd in per capita income. Also, the Guard provide job training in everything from electronics to truck driving.
This is the first mobilization of the Alabama Guard for military duty since 1968, but guardsmen are more than just fighting men and women. They provided security and cleanup assistance after floodwaters ravaged the south Alabama town of Elba in March. And they were there when a killer tornado plowed through Huntsville in December.
During the 1960s, guardsmen also were used to quell racial disturbances that erupted in many locales. Despite the outspoken segregationist stand of then-Gov. George C. Wallace, President Kennedy called up the Alabama Guard in 1963 to protect two blacks who broke the color line at the previously all- white University of Alabama.
Lt. Cindy Eskridge, who graduated from officer candidate school in August, said she and others support President Bush’s decision to send troops to the Middle East after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the takeover of neighboring Kuwait.
″We wouldn’t want someone to do to us what he did to Kuwait,″ she said.
Other Southern states also have large Guard contingents. Alabama’s neighbors - Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee - are at 100 percent or more of their assigned strength, Arnold said.
″If you look at those states that have done well in their recruiting efforts for Guard units, it will run on a line from Virginia through the Carolinas right along the Deep South,″ Arnold said. ″Patriotism is still alive and well in Alabama and all across the Deep South.″
In Ms. Eskridge’s case, she was ″bouncing around, not knowing what I wanted to do″ when she signed up four years ago. But her decision ran deeper than that.
’It was a patriotic thing, a love of country. That had a lot to do with it, too,″ said Ms. Eskridge. ″It’s not just a paycheck. It’s part of serving your country.″