Many have observed that the 14,000-member Georgia National Guard is just one big family.
Never has this been more true than now – if, by family, we’re talking about dysfunctional siblings and cousins whose every reunion requires a call to the cops and a supply of tourniquets.
No, “family” could be the wrong word. “Tribe” may be the better one.
Six months ago, Gov. Nathan Deal announced the involuntary retirement of Adjutant Gen. Terry Nesbitt. State Capitol veterans immediately identified the reason given for the abrupt departure as a red herring.
State law, we were told, required the Vietnam-era Special Forces veteran to retire by his upcoming 65th birthday, rather than before he turned 66.
But Nesbitt’s No. 2, Major Gen. Maria Britt, a West Point graduate and the first female commander of the Army National Guard, was his natural heir as adjutant general. She was dismissed as well –- and was nowhere near 65.
Last week, a request made under the state Open Records Act turned up a copy of an Aug. 15 memo sent to the Pentagon under the name of Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney, another decorated officer and director of a joint Army-Air Guard staff under Nesbitt.
Drawn up with the help of fellow National Guard officers, the memo alleged many things. The most explosive charge was that Nesbitt and Britt had engaged in a long-term and “improper” relationship –- something the accused generals denounced as a damned lie.
Dudney was fired by Nesbitt as the adjutant general walked out the door.
Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, says neither he nor the governor saw the Dudney memo until two months after the two National Guard leaders had departed. But they had heard the talk behind the formal complaint, and decided that -– regardless of the facts -– the situation required a clean slate.
Two trusted outsiders were brought in. State Sen. Jim Butterworth, a former captain in the Air Guard, was named adjutant general. Joe Jarrard, a retired lieutenant colonel with 20 years in the Army, with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, was installed as No. 2. Jarrard is the son of a former Deal law partner.
The governor’s attempt to address the situation has been met with derision from certain quarters, former and current Guard members included. For whether he likes it or not, Deal has gotten himself enmeshed in a serious culture war.
We will let David Poythress explain. He served eight years as Georgia’s adjutant general under both Govs. Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue. You have to think of the Guard, which over the last 10 years has carried the burden of two wars, as something that’s an essential part of the citizen community -– and yet very separate, Poythress said.
“It is a very tight and very unique culture. I likened it to a tribal relationship, where there is a code of conduct, and the body corporate pretty well manages itself,” he said. “If you’re in the tribe, you have to adhere to certain rules of conduct. And those norms are much more complex and much more extensive than in the civilian world.
“I had four specific rules of the tribe. No dishonesty, no discrimination, no drugs, and no dishonorable relationships,” the former adjutant general said.
Poythress, by the way, has taken no part in the current Guard hostilities, and reports that he has friends on every side.
In a tribal society, membership, reputation and rank matter – roughly in that order. That some of us may find these values over-emphasized can be attributed to the distance created by an all-volunteer military.
Yes, tribal customs can get out of hand. Last month, 17 officers and non-commissioned officers were removed from a Georgia Guard unit on peacekeeping duty in Kosovo for hazing newcomers.
But even little things matter. Back home, Butterworth, the new adjutant general, has been chided for not knowing the more detailed rules of the tribe. For instance, the U.S. military, it seems, frowns on those who use its helicopters to deliver game balls to high school football stadiums.
All of this could be dismissed as a fight over who controls the big toys – the personnel carriers, the tanks, the jets and the ‘copters –- were it not for the fact that we have sons and daughters fighting and dying in distant places. This war within the National Guard is being fought with the intensity of those who believe lives are at stake.
One of the most pointed criticisms made by those unhappy with Deal’s appointment of Butterworth, who is now federally ranked as a major, is that Guard funding requires each state’s adjutant general to compete for cash from the same Washington pot. Butterworth will be vying against field-grade generals.
Decent funding means decent equipment. And decent equipment saves lives. It will be one of Butterworth’s bigger tests when it comes to leading the Georgia tribe.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider