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Hokanson at Reagan National Defense Forum: National Guard Part of the Fabric of America

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

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – When he returned from a tour in Iraq as the commander of the Oregon National Guard’s 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team in 2009, then-Army Col. Daniel Hokanson saw how the unit’s 3,500 personnel returned to their communities.

“We brought the fabric of America to the war because there are no active-duty bases in Oregon, they came from every corner of the state,” said Hokanson, the Guard Bureau chief. “They were teachers, police officers, firemen…and they deployed. 

“Then they came back to their community, and they showed, look, you can do this. You can serve and you can go back and reintegrate into your communities.”

At the 2023 Reagan National Defense Forum—an annual gathering of national security and defense leaders—Hokanson spoke about recruiting and readiness and listened to remarks from key leaders.

During his keynote address, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III painted the backdrop of the current global environment as “challenging,” citing “the major conflicts facing our fellow democracies, Israel and Ukraine; bullying and coercion from an increasingly assertive China; and a worldwide battle between democracy and autocracy.”

“And let me be blunt about our mission,” Austin said. “The U.S. military is here to win our country’s wars—and to win them decisively. We will always try to deter conflict. But if we have to defend our country, we will fight—and we will win.”

On the recruiting front, the DoD is in competition with corporate America for the same talent pool, especially in high-tech areas like cyber defense and space. This issue was heightened in the wake of the pandemic. Employers have been offering incentives once unique to the military, including education benefits and healthcare packages.

In the 2023 Reagan National Defense Forum survey—a public opinion poll—about half of the respondents would encourage a friend or family member to join the military for reasons of patriotism, service and honor. More than 20% responded that a key point to discourage service is that it’s too dangerous and not worth the risks.

Hokanson joined U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Under Secretary of the Army Gabriel O. Camarillo, and Karl Rove to discuss these issues on the “Celebrating and Encouraging Service: How to Boost Recruitment and Ensure Readiness” panel.

Camarillo acknowledged recruiting as a long-term challenge for the Army. The service announced a major overhaul of its recruiting operations in October.

“This is the biggest transformation since the all-volunteer force was established in 1975,” Camarillo said of Army recruiting, citing increased prospecting and marketing and a revamped recruiting workforce to closer resemble Fortune 500 companies.

Hokanson sees recruiting as a tactical matter with strategic implications.

The Guard is 20% of the Joint Force funded at 4% of the defense budget. With about 430,000 members, it is the second largest military organization after the Army. There are eight full Army divisions and 90 Air wings within the Guard.

Hokanson emphasized that the National Guard exists to fight and win America’s wars as the Army and Air Force combat reserve. He noted that many Guardsmen either joined or renewed their commitment to serve after 9/11, with an expectation to deploy or mobilize overseas. 

He said Guardsmen bring “a treasure trove” of experience and expertise.

The Air National Guard won big in September’s Air Force William Tell fighter competition. The Vermont Guard’s 158th Wing earned the title of top F-35 Wing, along with other individual awards.

Four Army National Guard sniper teams emerged as the best contenders in the 2023 International Sniper Competition, and all finished in the top 10, with the Guard taking first place.

The Guard is also at the forefront of future warfighting domains. The Army Guard has more than 1,095 Soldiers working in cyber units. There are more than 11,500 Airmen assigned to Air Force cyber specialty codes in the Air Guard.

In September, Hokanson presented a joint Guard cyber team with the 2022 SANS NetWars Department of Defense Services Cup, marking the third consecutive year the Guard team has won the cybersecurity competition. 

“These Soldiers and Airmen embody the best of the Guard: experts in their civilian jobs who use their skills to serve their states and nation,” he said.

This warfighting posture enables the Guard to perform the most visible of its missions.

“Because we’re manned, trained and equipped to do arguably the most difficult task there is,” Hokanson said, “you can ask us to do almost anything within the local communities, and we will be there immediately to respond.

“We provide Guardsmen the opportunity to respond to their communities in times of need.”

Other panelists echoed the appeal of serving in the Guard.

“Because the [Guard] mission is right in front of you,” Cramer said, “you’re helping your neighbors during a flood or rescuing people in a snowstorm. And I think that does resonate.”

The CNGB spoke of the value and flexibility the Guard offers its members to serve as part-time Citizen-Soldiers or -Airmen.

“Many of our Guardsmen are college students because they can go to school and serve at the same time,” Hokanson said. “Another great advantage is if you’re from Des Moines, Iowa, or Medford, Oregon, and your family’s there and you want to live there, we offer you the opportunity to do all that.”

Still, Hokanson said the Guard is focused on connecting with the groups that have little or no association with the military. 

He encourages Guardsmen to tell the story of the Guard, which includes almost 7.5 million personnel days supporting combatant commands at home and around the world. Last year, more than 8,500 people were rescued from disasters, and four countries were added to the 100-nation Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.

A Pentagon data point says that 78% of those who entered military service had an immediate family member, friend, or relative in the military. 

“The difficult thing is, if you’ve not had contact with somebody in the military, and if you get your perception of the military from what you see on the news or the stuff that grabs headlines, you could have potentially a negative view of it,” Hokanson said.

“But those that actually know servicemembers realize there are great advantages and incredible opportunities,” he said.

The Guard has seen steady improvement in recruiting new members since the disruption of the pandemic, while retention is at historically high levels. Hokanson summarized some of his key initiatives to continue these trends. 

“No-cost healthcare for our Guardsmen, the same incentive-pay as active-component Soldiers and Airmen and duty-status reform,” he said. “And our whole goal is for every Guardsman to have two retirements: their National Guard and civilian retirement. 

“We want to show the value of serving our country and the long-term payback for you and your family,” he said.