Ill. National Guard's Readiness Scrutinized-AP
by Jim Suhr
Illinois has ample National Guard manpower to respond to any natural disaster or terrorist attack within its borders, but its arsenal of heavy equipment for such emergencies has been strained by their deployment overseas, state and federal officials warn.
Such concern in Illinois and other states about their National Guard's readiness has been stoked anew in the aftermath of last week's deadly tornado in Kansas, where Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has contended that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the response to the disaster.
"Stuff that we would have borrowed is gone," Sebelius complained of equipment shortfalls many other states say they also endure.
Democratic Illinois senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama weighed in this week, firing off a letter to the White House applauding Sebelius' criticisms while insisting the National Guard's equipment levels in his home state perhaps were stretched too thin.
Obama wrote that the state's Air National Guard "reports shortages of trucks, earth movers and other equipment critical to emergency response." Citing data from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, Obama added that the Illinois National Guard has only 45.6 percent of such equipment on hand. That is less than half of what he said would be needed to handle a Mississippi River flood, deadly tornadoes or evacuate civilians wounded in an attack.
"Our National Guard should never be overstretched to the point where we allow our homeland security and emergency response capabilities to erode," Obama wrote. "We cannot afford to learn a lesson about unmet needs each time a disaster strikes."
Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the head of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, testified during a Senate committee hearing last month it would take $38 billion over six years to bring equipment levels to 100 percent in Guard units in all states and U.S. territories. At present, he said, states on average have about 40 percent of the equipment they are authorized to have.
Illinois National Guard spokeswoman Stacey Rieger said Wednesday the Guard's staffing across the state appeared more than adequate to respond if calamity hit, with less than just 10 percent of the state's 10,000 members of the Army National Guard deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We do have the personnel available to support the citizens of Illinois as well as anyone else in the country who might need assistance," she said.
Still, the state's Army National Guard has left more than $40 million in equipment in Iraq or Afghanistan between 2003 and last year, causing some to worry about the availability of Guard resources if they're needed.
"The staffing of (Illinois') National Guard is fine, because we don't really have many troops overseas. But equipment is a huge concern," said Gov. Rod Blagojevich's deputy chief of staff for public safety matters, retired Army Reserve Col. Jill Morgenthaler. She also noted the state has left more than 220 Humvees overseas.
"Maybe we have to rent a Ryder," she joked before turning serious again, panning White House press secretary Tony Snow's claims this week that there still are sizable numbers of National Guard personnel and equipment around the country ready to respond to disasters.
"We're here to help each other across the state lines, but none of us have what we're supposed to," Morgenthaler said.
"As long as the White House is denying there's a problem, I don't see a solution any time soon."