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American Forces Press Service

Panetta Welcomes New National Guard Chief

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta hosted a change of responsibility ceremony here this morning, swearing in Army Gen. Frank Grass as the new National Guard Bureau chief and paying tribute to outgoing chief Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley’s nearly 40 years of service.

Grass received his fourth star during the ceremony.

Joining Panetta, McKinley and Grass on stage in the Pentagon Auditorium were Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The standing-room-only audience included Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, defense civilian and military leaders, senior enlisted members, National Guard state adjutants general, former Guard Bureau chiefs and international partners from many nations.

In his remarks, Panetta said the Guard is integral to the defense strategy released this year that calls for a leaner force that must be agile, flexible, quickly deployable and on the cutting edge of technology.

“But most importantly,” the secretary added, “it must be a defense force that can mobilize quickly in order to meet the crises that we may confront anywhere in the world. That is what the Guard has done these past 10 years of war, and what it must do in the future.”

In deploying the Guard, Panetta said, “we have made certain -- and this is very important -- that every community, every citizen, shares in the responsibility of defending America. If we are to fight wars … all of us need to be part of that effort if we are to succeed.”

The United States is beginning to emerge from a decade of war that has seen more than 460,000 Guard personnel deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and other overseas operations, the secretary said.

“Last year in Libya, the Air National Guard were there providing the bulk of the tankers that were so essential to that effort,” he said. “And today, more than 28,000 National Guardsmen remain deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere overseas.”

Panetta said that when he travels to the war zone or abroad, he can’t tell the difference between Guardsmen and the active duty force.

“That’s the way it should be,” he said.

As the 26th chief of the National Guard Bureau, the secretary noted, McKinley led men and women of the Guard during a time of crisis, mobilization and intense demand.

“The Guard responded, be it patrolling our nation’s skies, be it fighting and dying on the warfronts, be it responding swiftly and compassionately to floods and fires and disasters of one kind or another,” Panetta said.

“The men and women of the Guard have shown that they are always ready and always there,” he added, “and throughout his career so has Craig McKinley.”

McKinley rose through the ranks in the Florida Air National Guard and made history in 2008 when he became the first Guard officer to be awarded a fourth star -- “a recognition that I believe was long overdue for our country’s Guardsmen,” Panetta said.

Guardsmen have defended their communities and their nation for more than 375 years, the secretary noted. “And Craig has worked to improve coordination between the Guard and civil authorities in responding to catastrophes and disasters, securing airports and providing border security … and fighting fires and staging search-and-rescue operations.”

McKinley also worked hard to address the employment challenges facing Guardsmen and their families, he said.

“The Guardsmen who dedicate their lives to protecting this country should not have to worry about job security when they are called up to serve,” Panetta said, “and Craig has fought to make sure they were protected.”

McKinley made history again, he said, by becoming the first National Guard Bureau chief to serve as a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I benefited immensely from his advice and his counsel,” he added, “and I believe the president did as well.”

The Guard will remain in good hands with Grass in charge, the secretary said.

“He’s a Missouri native [and] a patriot who’s served for 42 years as both an enlisted soldier and an officer, rising to the pinnacle of his profession,” Panetta said.

Grass has served since 2010 as deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command, and as vice commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, responsible for protecting the air and maritime approaches to the United States.

“Today we entrust General Grass with a national treasure, a force that has been transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of the operational military and whose ranks are now filled with skilled combat veterans,” Panetta said.

“As we draw down from these wars and face a complex and threatening international security environment, … I know General Grass will work hard to ensure that we retain that hard-won experience and expertise in the Guard,” he added. “That’s something we cannot lose, [and] an investment we’ve got to protect for the future.”

Grass will help to guide innovative approaches to readiness and training and forward-looking efforts such as state partnership programs that help U.S. allies share in the security burden, Panetta said.

“Ceremonies like this continue to remind me that the reason we are the greatest military power on Earth lies not in our weapons, not in our planes or ships or advanced technology, as great as they all are, [but] in our people -- men and women in uniform who are willing to … put their lives on the line in order to protect America,” the secretary said.

“And it lies with their leaders -- people like Craig McKinley and Frank Grass, who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to keep our country safe,” he added.

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