Will the Guard be ready?

In a draft, a general warns of the Army taking gear before storm season.

Published May 25, 2007

Facing critical equipment shortages as hurricane season approaches, the head of the Florida National Guard has threatened to withhold some gear demanded by the U.S. Army, an internal guard document shows.

In the draft of an April letter intended for his commanders, Maj. Gen. Doug Burnett said the Army was "adamant" about the Guard providing equipment it seeks.

"WE WILL NOT do that and I ask each of you to keep me informed when requests for our equipment arise," he said in the draft.

The letter is about equipment sent to mobilization stations - bases where national guard troops train and prepare to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, using gear that may also go overseas.

"We absolutely cannot take any more equipment (below state hurricane needs) to the mobilization station ... for future deployments," the letter said.

The draft was prepared by Burnett's staff with input from the general, but it was never sent. His spokesman said the letter was an accurate representation of the general's "talking points" at recent meetings.

The letter comes at a time of national debate about the ability of Guard units to respond to natural disasters on the home front when an increasing amount of its equipment, from Humvees to night-vision goggles, is being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In interviews on Thursday, Florida Guard officials backed away from the language in the letter, now saying they would not refuse a demand by the Army. They minimized any disagreement.

Burnett said the Army, which did not return calls for comments, has never taken any equipment over his objections. He called the process a frank "negotiation."

"You can't blame (them) for being pushy and requesting it," said Burnett. "I don't think it's dishonorable for them to ask, and I don't think it's dishonorable for us to push back."

While equipment is undeniably short, Burnett said the Florida Guard is fully capable of responding to any hurricane. But he said the Guard can ill afford to lose more equipment. Hurricane season opens June 1.

Burnett's spokesman, Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, said that the Guard cannot legally refuse an Army demand, since the equipment is owned by the federal government.

But if the Guard found the Army demanding gear Florida could not afford to lose, it might be a matter brought to Gov. Charlie Crist and the state's congressional delegation for political help, Tittle said.

Crist's office did not return calls for comments.

U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he discusses Guard issues with Burnett regularly and hadn't heard any talk of a refusal to provide equipment.

"I think Gen. Burnett is being very cautious, and he should be because he does have a real obligation during hurricane season," Young said.

Burnett's letter was released after a public records request by the St. Petersburg Times.

The letter said the guard's "current dilemma" is that it could no longer afford to make critical equipment available to the Army when it may be needed to respond to a hurricane.

"I will push back hard should this be attempted again and have briefed the governor and our congressional delegation on the issue," the letter said. "I know this issue will arise as Army leadership insists on getting our equipment for use" at mobilization sites.

"It remains evident that Congress does not have the complete picture from the Army concerning ... equipment needed for the National Guard," it said.

While Guard units typically train and deploy with their own equipment, shortages can force them to borrow equipment from other undeployed units when the Army can't replace missing items, Guard officials say.

And as is the case for Guard units across the country, equipment sent overseas frequently stays in Iraq and Afghanistan when troops return.

Burnett, as adjutant general of Florida's Guard, is a gubernatorial appointment who answers to Crist.

"We want to maintain our strong approach," said Burnett's spokesman, Tittle. "We understand we're all in this fight together. But the general also has to satisfy his boss, the governor, that we have the resources to respond to any need. That's what the general is trying to balance. He's caught in the middle."

A congressional commission reported in March that 88 percent of Guard and Reserve units nationally were not ready to deploy because of equipment shortfalls.

In Florida, equipment stockpiles fluctuate widely. Burnett said the Florida Guard currently has less than 50 percent of its authorized equipment, down from 74 percent before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

About 1,000 Florida Guard personnel are deployed overseas, with more than 10,000 available at home for hurricane duty. That's more than in the busy 2004-05 hurricane seasons, Burnett said.

A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, which coordinates Guard efforts around the country, said he has heard of no outright refusals by Guard units to provide gear or personnel despite severe shortages.

"It'd probably be hard to push back and not provide something that belongs to the Army," said spokesman Emanuel Pacheco.

"They're all in the same boat," Pacheco said. "Nobody's fat, dumb and happy."