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On Memorial Day, salute the RI National Guard

May 27, 2011

Rhode Islanders will greet Memorial Day will celebration, softball and solemnity. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that some Rhode Island soldiers deserve more respect than they often receive.

Rhode Islanders mark today’s holiday with  parades, prayer and the haunting strains of

taps at the graves of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their countrymen. We will gather near granite monuments on our ancient town greens to pay respects to the fallen men and women from Bunker Hill to Baghdad.

One group that never seems to receive as much public honor and acclaim as they deserve are the men and women of the National Guard and Reserve. The Rhode Island National Guard has a storied history which harkens from the citizen solider tradition of the American colonies. Colonists established a militia shortly after the first white settlers planted roots here in the 17th Century.

The first Rhode Island militia to see action came in July of 1769 when the British Schooner HMS Liberty was sunk off Newport and later in the famous 1772 burning of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay.

Rhode Island soldiers played crucial roles in the War of 1812, the Civil War and World Wars I and II. Guardsmen – there were no women in those days-were also used to put down labor unrest and textile mill strikes in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the political turmoil and protest that surrounded the Vietnam War took its toll on the military and the guard’s reputation.

Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember a time when young men joined the National Guard as a way to duck service in Vietnam and meet their military obligation as weekend warriors who spent their training time buddy bonding over beers. The guard was seen as the guys who helped people through the drifts during the 1978 snowstorm or patrolled streets during hurricanes.

Those days are gone. Today’s guard and reserve forces are every much the professionals that now make up our active military units. The recent wars of stateless terror in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the seamless integration of National Guard troops with the regular military.

Sen. Jack Reed, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, says it is no longer unusual to see National Guard officers commanding regular Army troops. “It’s all one Army,’’ says Reed. “When you go out into the field in Afghanistan or Iraq, you can’t tell who is with the National Guard and who is  regular army.’’

The move to professionalize the U.S. armed forces that was ushered in after Vietnam has included the guard. A Rhode Islander, Brig. Gen. Rick Bacchus, commanded the prison camp at Guantanamo in Cuba after the 9-11 attacks. Since 9-11, our national guard troops have been deployed side by side with regular military troops.

These terror war deployments have been the largest Rhode Island guard deployments since World War I. And, sadly, for the first time since World War II, our Rhode Island guard troops have suffered combat casualties.

In the modern era, there is one serious difference between regular military and the guard. The men and women of the National Guard are as deeply rooted in their communities as their colonial forebears. They are deployed around the globe, but they are also your friends, co-workers and neighbors. During last year’s flooding, it was the guard that guaranteed order as the rivers swelled.

As all Rhode Islanders know, Memorial Day marks the unofficial first day of summer. As you clean the barbeque grill, retrieve the swim trunks from winter storage and oil the softball mitt, take some time to reflect on the sacrifices your fellow Rhode Islanders in the National Guard make for all of us.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the WRNI `On Politics’ blog ast

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