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Guard leaders talk pandemic, readiness, career progression

The 29th Chief of the National Guard Bureau said his top priority is advocating for soldiers and airmen so they never have to make a choice between service and family.

Gen. Daniel Hokanson stepped into his role at a time when members are being mobilized for back-to-back missions, including pandemic response, civil unrest, post-election activities and more. And for the first time in more than six decades, all three of the Guard’s top leaders share a similar career trajectory: they are all former adjutants general. Hokanson’s confirmation came as Lt. Gen. Michael Loh took the helm as the 13th director of the Air National Guard and Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen was sworn in as the 22nd director of the Army National Guard.

Gen. Daniel Hokanson and his team met with 13 state Adjutants General, their Senior Enlisted Leaders and Spouses and Family Programs Managers, to discuss various issues. Photo by Master Sgt. John Winn.

Hokanson previously served as the adjutant general of Oregon National Guard. He says that experience allows him to better understand how to support the 54.

“When I was in Oregon, I got to command the 41st Brigade Combat Team, and so as an Oregon guardsman I was responsible to recruit, to retain, to train and equip. We mobilized, we deployed overseas for just under a year, and then we came back and we demobilized back into our communities — and so we worked with our soldiers, families, employers throughout that process. That was a wonderful learning experience, and so then later when I came back to be the adjutant general, where you’re responsible for that across the entire state and you work for your governor and you support your communities — but you also have to man, train and equip and make sure units are ready for overseas deployment — there was two things I learned from that.

“Number one is, you gain a significant appreciation for what an adjutant general has to do, what their responsibilities are, what we ask them to do and what their governors ask them to do. You also realize the importance of the National Guard Bureau because they’re the ones that advocate at the national level for the resources and the funding to make those things possible in the state that keep the soldiers coming back every drill weekend,  but also helps the families so that they support their service members continued service,” Hokanson said.

In his own career, Hokanson says he reached a point where he struggled to “balance it all.” Being married as a first lieutenant, then having three young children at a time that intersected with a new job and completing professional military education, makes him more aware of the added stressors that come with the lifestyle of National Guard service. He urges soldiers and airmen communicate with their chain of command to get any additional support they may need.

“The only reason we exist here is to help support the 54 and our people’s ability to balance their civilian career, their military career, and their family during this really unprecedented time. I knew coming in that we have to do everything we can to provide the support to them so they can find that balance and still be able to serve. You look at families having their kids home; some of our folks not sure about what their future employment was going to be in light of COVID, so the priority has and always will be our people,” he said.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael A. Loh is promoted to the rank of lieutenant general during a Change of Responsibility ceremony at the Pentagon in July. Loh’s wife, Diane, and daughter, Heather, pinned the new lieutenant general insignia on his service jacket. Photo by Technical Sgt. Morgan R. Lipinski.

The Director of the Air National Guard echoes that sentiment. Loh is responsible for formulating, developing and coordinating all policies, plans and programs affecting more than 107,000 airmen and civilians in more than 90 wings and 175 geographically separated units across 213 locations throughout the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, according to the bureau’s website.

Loh admits that competing ambitions oftentimes lead to tough decisions.

“I’ve balanced my civilian career, my military career, and family, and we call that the three-legged stool. There were times where I made a conscious decision to my commanders to actually pursue management opportunities and other leadership opportunities in the civilian sector. So, I managed all of the instructors at United Airlines … I was on the high-level management track with that and then I had to make a decision when I came to the point of being an O6 commander and then follow on O7 … I didn’t feel like I could do both and so I chose the military simply because I love what I do,” Loh said.

He attributes part of his success to taking advantage of opportunities offered by the military.

“Whether it’s education, leadership, taking special assignments … because they are unique to the military but they provide you with such a foundation for the rest of your life,” Loh said.

Loh graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984, spending seven years on active duty before switching components. When the Air Force started downsizing after the Gulf War, Loh explored the civilian job market. He joined Colorado National Guard in 1992 and established a career in the airline industry.

He said in order to be successful, airmen will need to sacrifice time, but “hard work does pay off and yes you’re going to have to make some choices with personal time if indeed you want to be identified and be special out there.”

In 2020 alone, more than 100,000 were mobilized from the Guard. Loh said even though there were missions that nobody could have ever anticipated, soldiers and airmen were ready to go “at a moment’s notice.” But leaders are aware that in order to maintain an effective force that can do that, modernization is required.

“I think the biggest challenge all the services are facing is meeting that national defense strategy with limited budgets and then how we move that forward. You look at what’s going on in the nation right now and we’re talking at the end of the day, after we get through this COVID, this global pandemic is flatlining or even decreasing of the military budget, so how do you meet that national defense strategy? … So every day I look at, there’s 11% on duty each and every day and how do I maintain the readiness and get the resources and the training, and then of course the equipment that’s necessary. We are in the oldest aircraft, some of the oldest weapons systems, so how do we recapitalize those.

“We’re going to accelerate the change necessary to try to capitalize on what the Air National Guard brings as the operational reserve. It is a no-fail mission for our nation,” Loh said.

Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson administers the oath of office to Lt. Gen. Jon A. Jensen as the 22nd director of the Army National Guard on Monday at the Temple Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Peter Morrison.

Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen served previously as the 31st adjutant general of the Minnesota and earlier as the commanding general of the 34th Infantry Division. He has commanded at the company, battalion, brigade, and division levels, according to his official biography. His priorities are people, modernization and readiness.

“Each one’s a little bit unique and has a lot of different facets to it, but the Army’s a people-centric organization, so everything that we can do that better enables our soldiers to reach their full potential is important to us. And as a reserve component, that includes our relationship and the support we receive from our soldiers’ employers.”

The Army National Guard is comprised of 335,000 soldiers, and, as with the other components, leadership is facing complex issues like resiliency, suicide prevention, sexual assault, sexual harassment.

“Ultimately the goal for me is ensuring that our soldiers can really reach their full potential,” Jensen said.

Key areas Jensen is focused on going into 2021, in addition to modernization of equipment as Loh mentioned, are:

  1. How we’re organized
  2. How we implement talent management
  3. How we train

The long-term effects of the pandemic’s impact on how the Guard recruits and trains is still to be determined, though Jensen said it did impact readiness opportunities in 2020 because of restrictions. But it also led leaders to consider some new ways of approaching training.

“One of the unique things that has come out of our COVID-19 response and era is we were much more willing to do distributive training — something we’ve been hesitant to do in the past and it’s really opened up an entire new avenue for us,” Jensen said.

Hokanson adds that as soldiers and airmen continue to be face ongoing missions, there is also an opportunity for commands to identify the future leaders of the National Guard.

“I think we need to not just look up and down but left and right in our organization. Identify those folks with demonstrated potential, encourage them to get their military education, their civilian education; encourage them to seek those opportunities, give them promotion opportunities,” Hokanson said.

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