The New Jersey National Guard is at its highest rate of troop readiness in its history, even as its mission is shifting back to domestic priorities, according to a 2015 budget report.
The state’s Army National Guard has an authorized strength of 6,025 soldiers, 87 percent of whom are qualified and available for state and federal mobilization.
“It’s good news for emergency management,” said Martin Pagliughi, emergency management coordinator for Cape May County.
The National Guard is a common sight in South Jersey during coastal storms, when their heavy equipment is used for evacuations and medical emergencies.
“They have the resources, they have the manpower, they have the equipment,” Pagliughi said. “Why not use them for weather-related disasters?”
The state’s Army National Guard ranks 14th in the nation in overall troop strength. The Air National Guard has 2,293 members, including those stationed at the 177th Fighter Wing in Egg Harbor Township, which places it third nationally in overall strength.
“The New Jersey National Guard is ready. That’s the most important message,” said Patrick Daugherty, a spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
New Jersey’s Army National Guard had a budget of $120 million last year. The Air National Guard spends about $81 million per year. Daugherty said the budget supports these high levels of readiness.
The National Guard prioritized its funding for operations and training through soldier development, collective readiness and skills training, according to the budget report.
“To maintain that level of readiness, soldiers need training. That’s what keeps them motivated and keeps their skills honed,” Daugherty said.
Locally, the 253rd Transportation Company in Middle Township was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2012. The Hammonton-based 119th Combat Support Battalion was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, among other examples.
Statewide, more than 1,000 soldiers were deployed at any given time during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s a bell curve. Our deployments are directly proportional to national events around the globe,” Daugherty said.
“From 9/11, we ramped up. Then around 2011, we started to slope back down again.”
The 177th Fighter Wing’s ongoing mission is to protect U.S. airspace, particularly over cities such as New York and Washington. The air wing flies F-16s from its base at Atlantic City International Airport.
Commander Col. John R. DiDonna Jr., 49, of Egg Harbor Township, said that mission remains constant and unchanged, unlike deployments in 2010 and 2012 to Iraq and Afghanistan where they served a particular air-support role. The Air National Guard and its approximately 1,200 airmen have to maintain a high state of readiness to carry out their domestic mission, he said.
“We can’t fall down on that mission. We have to be ready,” he said.
For example, fighter planes with the 177th intercepted the NORAD surveillance blimp that broke free from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in October before crashing 160 miles away in Pennsylvania.
The 177th’s motto is “community based, global impact.” About 65 percent of airmen have full-time civilian jobs. One of its pilots, for example, is a physics professor, DiDonna said. But they train throughout the year to maintain their skills.
“I’m confident our guys could deploy any time and get the job done,” he said.
Like the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard occasionally is tasked by the governor to respond to emergencies or security details, DiDonna said. But its prime focus is to carry out the missions of an air wing, which requires all the related support of mechanics, firefighters and security.
While the National Guard has seen fewer overseas deployments in recent years, Daugherty said many New Jersey soldiers still serve abroad. For example, a Military Police company is deployed now at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We have a state mission, too. During a domestic crisis or emergency, the National Guard can provide homeland help,” he said. “That just shows how versatile the National Guard is.”
The New Jersey State Police routinely calls upon the National Guard for assistance in natural or manmade disasters when Gov. Chris Christie declares a state of emergency, spokeswoman Laura Connolly said.
“In New Jersey, we have a very good relationship with the National Guard,” she said. “We work with them on planned events such as the papal visit and the Super Bowl. We work with them on emergency management such as Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms.
“The fact that they’re at the highest rate of readiness is a good thing for us,” she said.
For example, the 253rd Transportation Company used its heavy trucks to move patients at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Atlantic City campus, the morning after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, when the Atlantic City Expressway was closed from washed-up storm debris.
“Our New Jersey National Guard is fully capable to respond quickly and effectively during times of domestic emergencies, as evidenced during Superstorm Sandy. And in the case of a terrorist attack or other crisis, it is essential for New Jersey to have members of our National Guard trained, equipped and ready to assist,” said Joelle Farrell, spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office.
Meanwhile, the state spent $200,000 on the Council on Armed Forces and Veterans’ Affairs, an advocacy group that fights proposed base closings.
New Jersey’s five military bases include the 177th Fighter Wing and the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May.
The state hired a consultant, Cassidy & Associates, last year to develop a strategy to avoid base closings in New Jersey. That study is expected to be complete in coming months.
A task force last year concluded the 177th Fighter Wing supported 3,000 local jobs and generated $165 million for the local economy.
Training Center Cape May provides 1,058 jobs and generates $91 million each year for the local economy.
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