On Saturday there will be a changing of — and at — the Guard.
The Minnesota National Guard, that is, as Major Gen. Jon A. Jensen is sworn in as adjutant general, succeeding Major Gen. Richard C. Nash.
But as Jensen describes it, it’s more of a transition than a change, since he intends to focus on “the same core things.”
“We’re a soldier-airman-family-centric organization,” Jensen said. “Our people are our most important thing that we have, and they will be our priority because everything revolves around that.”
People were a priority for Nash as well. In an interview in his nearly cleared-out office — only pictures of the grandkids remained — he indicated that inclusion of all sectors of an increasingly divided society is imperative, an approach recognized as recently as this week when the Minnesota National Guard won three of five awards for excellence in diversity from the National Guard Bureau.
That’s the ethos Jensen will build upon.
“Diversity has always been important in the Minnesota National Guard,” Jensen said. “Service needs to be available for everyone,” even though “not everyone will select service.”
This approach has been put to the test by President Donald Trump’s transgender ban, a policy at least temporarily halted after a federal ruling on Monday. Respecting the chain of civilian command, both officers said they would follow official policy. But both Jensen and Nash were sympathetic to the uncertainty facing transgender troops.
“I find it difficult to accept that we are going to open the door and close the door very quickly,” said Jensen. “That is not consistency, and I can empathize with our transgender soldiers and airmen who now are beginning to question what’s really going on — ‘Am I a valued member of the team?’ ”
Transgender troops “have served, have deployed and now they’re being looked at [as if] their service isn’t needed, required or wanted, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Nash said. “But again, that’s a decision for policy leaders to make.”
Policy leaders will also make deployment decisions amid spiraling crises on nearly every continent.
“I believe the world today is more dangerous and volatile than at any time since 9-11-2001,” Nash wrote in a farewell e-mail to the force. “Never has our nation needed a strong National Guard more than it does now,” he added.
Nash elaborated in an interview that a “revisionist Russia is still out there” imperiling postwar peace throughout Europe and even in the Arctic. There are the enduring conflicts that have resulted in Minnesota National Guard deployments in the Mideast and Southwest Asia, as well as the alacrity of the North Korean crisis, let alone transnational threats like terrorism and cyberwarfare.
Jensen also noted the geopolitical dynamics. “Our current operating environment is incredibly complex, incredibly dangerous and incredibly challenging,” he said.
Which means that diplomacy is essential.
“The Army is a globally integrated force and so there are a lot of challenges with that, but not all of these challenges will lead to military confrontation,” Jensen said, adding hopefully, “You know, no one supports the Department of State like a soldier.
“We are all about partnerships, coalitions and allies, and we are more than happy to train with them, but if that’s what our nation asked us to do, then that’s what we’ll do — we’ll fight with our partners.”
That’s what our nation has indeed done, turning to the Minnesota National Guard at a higher rate than most states.
Some of this is due to unique combat capabilities, both Nash and Jensen said. But part of it, Nash added, “is having Midwest ethics, work ethics, the quality of the soldiers and airmen we have.”
Amid these international issues, the Minnesota National Guard will still fight fires and floods and whatever else the state requests. So Jensen believes it’s key that the Guard is geographically dispersed, which not only helps in emergencies, but also allows recruiting that reflects an increasingly diverse Minnesota.
Nationally, the tiles of the American mosaic increasingly don’t seem to align, but both the outgoing and incoming adjutant generals believe that service can be a unifying factor.
“You get to know your fellow Minnesotan who’s different than you,” Jensen said. “What you really focus on are similarities … commitment to nation, commitment to state, commitment to community, but most important, commitment to each other.”
Nash, considering that commitment over a 45-year career that began by being drafted in 1972, said, “I saw a melting pot when I went to basic training of African-Americans and Latinos, and I’ve seen Southern Baptists and northern Christians and I’ve seen atheists all come together.”
When asked how much he’ll miss his troops, Nash’s emotion spoke what words couldn’t.
It’s become common — and controversial, among some — to thank those in uniform for their service.
“Well, they do that,” Nash said. “I’m embarrassed by it; it’s sort of the profession of a dual citizen-soldier that I chose to do. It’s appreciated but embarrassing. I would rather have them thank our families and our employers. Soldiers will do the job they’re trained at, they’ll go to where we deploy them. But the hard job is for the families and kids they leave behind, and the turmoil that causes for our employers being able to support that. Those are the real heroes.”
Maybe so. But those in uniform deserve recognition — and, yes, even a thank you — too.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.