Guard Association speaks for soldiers

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

MURFREESBORO -- Health insurance for children and spouses of National Guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan is threatened by budget cutting, according to a Marshall County commissioner who's the executive director of the National Guard Association of Tennessee.

"There's a legislative alert to members concerned about reductions in Medicare," Executive Director Larry McKnight said last weekend. TRICARE, the health insurance program for America's military "is tied directly to that. It would reduce insurance for military families" because lower payment schedules would prompt doctors to stop accepting patients with that coverage.

The message to Tennessee National Guardsmen and their families went out Friday, warning that physician payment rate schedules would be reduced by 21 percent on Monday, so the association asked them to tell Congress to reverse the decision.

Like many professional groups, the National Guard Association of Tennessee represents a constituency and those interests were discussed Thursday through Saturday at the Embassy Suites in Rutherford County. The event was attended by nearly 1,000 soldiers plus some 200 spouses and vendors.

Gov. Phil Bredesen presided over a moment of silence honoring four Tennessee Guard members who died on duty, including Billie Jean Grinder, 25, of Gallatin who died in Iraq 10 days ago and is survived by a husband and twin stepdaughters.

Saturday morning, news of the earthquake in Chile prompted some speculation on whether guardsmen would be sent there as they've responded to provide disaster recovery service in Haiti.

Earlier that day, Bredesen signed an executive order extending compensation for state workers during National Guard deployment to Haiti, meaning if there's a gap between their civilian pay and their military pay, then the state pays the difference. The benefit has been in place for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In the past," Bredesen said, "Tennessee's employers and businesses have enacted similar policies across the state, and I am confident they will do so again."

It's not always needed.

"My son, Jared, worked for the schools (in Marshall County) and his contract wasn't renewed," McKnight said in a weekend interview. "He's making more in the Guard. Of course, he's getting combat pay, hazardous duty pay and separation pay."

Speaking to nearly 1,000 soldiers, Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., complimented Bredesen, noting the governor had attended eight annual Guard Association conferences.

"I don't know many governors who do that," said the general who started his career in Florida.

McKinley also told guardsmen Saturday morning about state National Guards being represented with equal standing when the Joint Chiefs of Staff form recommendations for the White House.

That recent change put a four-star general at the table in the Pentagon instead of a three-star general. McKinley is that four-star general.

"Rank is everything in that world," explained Jim Bassham, a retired Air National Guardsman who now served as the director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. The Guard now has "the same influence" as the other branches of military service.

That change was acknowledged in recent weeks when the first meeting of the Council of Governors was held in Washington, the general and Bassham explained. Ten governors -- five Republicans and five Democrats -- take their concerns directly to the Secretary of Defense instead of those issues being "filtered through staff" in Washington, Bassham said.

"It's not just faster," the TEMA director said. "It takes the spin out of it..."

The National Guard Association has advocated such changes as the role of the Guard that has changed from one dealing with emergencies in their states, to what's now a full partner role during international campaigns.

"The guard now has a world mission," said Marshall County Commissioner Dean Delk who attended the 81st Annual Conference of the National Guard Association of Tennessee, advocating the group and that branch of the military. "When I was in the Guard, it had a state mission."

Delk was in the Guard from 1971 to 1992. When he moved to Tennessee from South Carolina, he met McKnight who was a training officer at Tullahoma.

Beyond forming life-long friendships, Delk credits the Guard with training him on how to transition from one who only took orders to a leadership position.

Also speaking at the association's conference were U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Zach Wamp, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.