Minnesota's top National Guard leader and his wife joined military brass traveling at taxpayer expense to the U.S. Virgin Islands this week to attend a meeting of the Adjutants General Association of the United States.

Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito was among dozens of generals and several hundred senior Guard leaders at the exclusive Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas.

Minnesota National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Olson confirmed Shellito and his wife, Evonne, were participants at the four-day conference, which ended Friday. Shellito was traveling home Saturday and couldn't be reached, Olson said, adding that no other Minnesotans attended.

"The real story is not that the adjutant general of Minnesota was jetting off to the Virgin Islands for business meetings because the adjutants general of all the states and territories did that. It's allowed by current federal laws and business practices and it's been going on for years," Olson said. He said the Adjutants General Association selects the location for the meetings, most held in the continental United States.

The association holds three meetings a year to wrestle with the challenges facing the Army and Air National Guard. Two of the meetings are held in Washington.

Past venues for the meeting outside the nation's capital have included Anchorage, Alaska, Williamsburg, Va., and Omaha. Next year's is Jackson Hole, Wyo. State and federal tax dollars pay for the travel and lodging, although Olson said the Shelittos' trip was a federal expense. He didn't have an estimate of the cost.

Budget watchdogs contended that the tropical getaway sent a poor message at a time when the Guard -- stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has a $47.5 billion deficit in the equipment accounts.

The Guard said it could not immediately calculate the exact cost of the event, which began Monday and ended Friday evening, because not every state sends the same number of people and airfare can vary.

In an e-mail, a Guard spokesman, Lt. Col. Kevin McAndrews, said the meeting in St. Thomas was a "very important conference" that was approved by the Defense Department. With the Guard working in so many different places, coordination among state leaders and senior officials in Washington is critical and regular gatherings fine-tune those working relationships, he said.

Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the association's president and adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard, said in an e-mailed statement that spouses travel on federal dollars because "they attend meetings to discuss and learn about items such as family programs that care for our troops and their families."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jim Adams • 612-673-7658