5 Surprising Facts About the National Guard and Reserves

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Polls have shown the United States military is by far the most respected American institution. Like all institutions, its core is not buildings, mission statements or budgets, but people. The U.S. military features both active duty personnel and reserve forces. These reserve forces are comprised of Army and Air National Guard units — which are controlled by their states in peacetime — as well as the federal Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Reserve units. The 845,000 Guard members and Reservists have served extensively in America’s wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the National Guard celebrates its 375th birthday on Dec. 13, here are five surprising facts about the Guard and Reserves.

5. The National Guard is Oldest Part of the Military

The National Guard traces its roots to 1636.
In 1636, Massachusetts Bay colony leaders organized existing town militias into three regiments: North, South and East. Able-bodied males between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to own a firearm and train with their unit every week. The British colonies needed protection from various Indian tribes and other Europeans competing for a foothold in the New World and the citizen militias filled the role. The regular Army, Navy and Marines were not founded until more than a century later, around the time of the American Revolution. By the way, one of those original guard regiments from 1636 lives on today as the 101st Engineer Battalion of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.


4. Naval Militias Patrol U.S. Waterways

The New York Naval Militia patrols waterways in the state.

New York Naval Militia

A number of states including New York, Ohio and Texas have naval militias operating along the U.S. coastline and on its waterways. In the 1880s the Navy proposed a national Naval Reserve, but Congress voted it down. However, the bill served as the basis for the state’s naval militias. The militias are made up mostly of Navy, Coast Guard and Marine reservists who volunteer their time. They serve under the authority of the state adjutant general and are usually commanded by a rear admiral. Naval militias are unarmed and focus on boat safety and general patrol duties. For example, the New York Naval Militia carries out duties as diverse as patrolling the Hudson River near the Indian Point nuclear power plants; patrolling Lake Champlain to watch for smugglers; and assisting in disaster response, such as during the Hurricane Irene crisis. Although the Navy Reserve was created in 1915, the naval militias continue to fill an important role at the state level.


3. National Guard Fielded the First African American Unit

The National Guard fielded the first official African-American regiment in the U.S. military.

54th Massachusetts Volunteers fight in the Civil War

In the middle of the Civil War, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrews received permission from the federal government to form a volunteer infantry made up entirely of African Americans. This decision was controversial, as many doubted whether such a unit would be skilled and disciplined enough to serve effectively in combat. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteers got the chance to prove themselves in an attack on a heavily defended Confederate position on Morris Island at the mouth of the Charleston River. The unit fought bravely but sustained heavy casualties and failed to take the objective. Sgt. Carney, the first African American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor, received the military’s highest decoration as a result of his actions at Morris Island. The battle was famously depicted in the award-winning 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.


2. Guard and Reserves Provided About Half the Troops For Afghanistan and Iraq

The National Guard and Reserves provided roughly half the troops used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of the Arkansas National Guard in Iraq, 2004

National Guard and Reserve units have served in all of America’s wars going back to the French and Indian War in the 1750s. However, since the Global War on Terror began after 9/11 the active duty military has had to rely on the Guard and Reserve components much more heavily than in the past. With the end of the Cold War, force levels shrunk significantly during the 1990s. For example, the Army fell from a strength of 780,000 to 480,000 during this period. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) necessitated a larger force. However, the relatively small increases could not offset the need to deploy more part-time troops. 300,000 National Guard and Reservists accounted for about 55 and 43 percent of the troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey explained the situation succinctly when he said, “the reality of it all is that we cannot go to war without the Guard and Reserve.”


1. National Guard Operates the Air Defense System Protecting Washington, D.C.

The National Guard is responsible for much of the air defense around Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country.

Pfc. Trevor Gaston with anti-aircraft weapon, Bolling AFB, Washington, D.C.

Many of us remember the images of fighter jets patrolling over American cities in the days and weeks after 9/11. Most people don’t realize that these Combat Air Patrols, which continue today, have been mostly a National Guard and Reserve mission.  In response to 9/11, President Bush implemented Operation Noble Eagle on Sept. 15, 2001. Air Guard units have deployed a variety of aircraft and support units to defend the 2,500 square miles of air space around Washington, D.C. Many of the 35,000 National Guardsmen deployed as part of Operation Noble Eagle hail from South Carolina and Ohio. Units from these states have participated in rotating assignments to D.C. For example, the 263rd Air Defense Artillery Brigade has deployed with the hand-held Stinger Missile system to help keep the skies safe.

Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.