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Senior enlisted advisor highlights strategic importance of Guam National Guard

  • Published
  • By Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely,
  • National Guard Bureau

BARRIGADA, Guam – Mientras mas megai libidtaña, mas megai babaña.

This Chamorro proverb (translation: “The more liberty, the more license”) speaks to the indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands chain that includes Guam and serves as a watchword for the National Guard Soldiers and Airmen charged to make it so.

A tiny island 6,000 miles from the United States mainland, Guam sits at the epicenter of the Indo-Pacific theater of operations – an area of burgeoning strategic significance to the United States.

“Sometimes, the smallest places are huge, strategically,” Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead told Guam National Guard Soldiers and Airmen during a town hall at the Guam National Guard Readiness Center last week. “This place and the people here play a vital role in our National Defense Strategy. You are what makes this place special.”

Whitehead, the senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, visited the 210-square-mile island, an area roughly three times the size of Washington, D.C., where 1,500 Guam Guard members call home. That number represents the highest percentage of National Guard personnel per capita for any state or territory, said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Celso Leonen, the Guam National Guard’s senior enlisted leader.

“Eighty percent of Guam families or more are represented in the Guam National Guard. We’re such a small community, everyone is related to each other,” Leonen said. He has served with the parents of many current Guam National Guard members, watching their offspring grow up in the Guard.

“When people here know the Guam National Guard is involved in something, it gives them relief,” Leonen said. “They say, ‘Oh, one of my family members is in the Guard, and if the Guard is involved, everything will be OK.’”

Guam Guardsmen carry a lineage and legacy of defending their home island. Guam’s location as the westernmost U.S. territory makes it a target. In December 1941, the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Guam was attacked and subsequently occupied by Japanese forces through 1944. Thousands of Guamanians died. Every July 21, Guam celebrates Liberation Day to mark the day U.S. service members landed on Guam to begin the fight to end the occupation.

The National Guard’s community-based force brings unique advantages in homeland defense that is especially evident here, Whitehead said. He met with Guam Guard personnel across the island to witness firsthand their capabilities.

On the island’s northern point, he visited Soldiers with the Guam Army Guard’s 1224th Engineer Support Company. This small company has a big responsibility, providing around-the-clock security to protect key air defense assets critical to Guam’s defense.

Army Spc. Monica Iriarte, a Guam native and heavy-equipment operator, is proud to be a part of this security mission. She is the first in her family to serve in the Guard and enlisted to pursue a better life for her and her young child.

“The importance of our mission is really mind-blowing,” she said. “It’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders to know we’re guarding something so important to the defense of Guam. But it’s also so rewarding.”

In addition to homeland defense missions, the Guam Guard has been integral in supporting island residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its Joint Task Force 671 provided testing and vaccinations across the island, issuing more than 200,000 vaccine doses in a population of roughly 160,000 citizens, including many in sparsely populated villages.

“There is such a close connection between the Guam Guard and the local communities and villages here,” Whitehead said. “You can see it in citizens’ eyes when they see a uniformed Guard member with that Guam patch on their sleeve. They know that’s one of their own.”

However, Guam’s importance to the National Guard extends far from the island. Guam has a well-established trilateral partnership with the Hawaii National Guard and the Republic of the Philippines as part of the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program. The Guam Guard is also closely connected with neighboring islands in the Mariana Islands archipelago.

Guam Soldiers and Airmen have deployed the world over in support of U.S. theater operations since 2002. As recently as 2021, Guam Guard members mobilized to support the 59th Presidential Inauguration, Operation Inherent Resolve, and Operations Allies Refuge and Allies Welcome.

The Guam National Guard’s 254th Air Base Group at Andersen Air Force Base conducts civil engineering and security forces missions. It also recently established the 254th Space Control Squadron to provide a defensive space electromagnetic warfare capability. This will add further strategic relevance and bring more full-time Active Guard and Reserve billets to the Guam National Guard.

The SEA also spent time with Army and Air Guard recruiters. He stopped by an Army Guard electronic sports recruiting event at the Micronesia Mall in Dededo, Guam’s most populated village.

“I haven’t been to a recruiting event where I’ve seen that many recruiters and civilians together,” Whitehead said. “That was really cool and a testament to the creativity of the recruiters here to integrate with the populace to find the next generation of Guam Guard members.”

One Guam recruiter, Army Sgt. Gerard Paulino, said he wants the people of his home island to thrive and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

“If you want another avenue for success here,” he said, ”follow me, and I’ll show you the way.”