Credit: Courtesy Sgt. Michael Chen
Published: November 25, 2010
Members of the Charlottesville-based Charlie Company of the force’s 13th Battalion of the “Blackhorse” brigade are the state’s backup force to the National Guard. When the Guard is called up, the Blackhorse brigade is ready to ride in to take over whatever duties need to be filled, from communications and logistics to emergency response and management. They’re also available to do the basic tasks that allow more guardsmen to put boots on the ground.
But where the Guard gets federal equipment and training, the state force is pretty much on its own. The agency drills once each month, but not with weapons. It focuses on crowd control, traffic control and security checkpoints, communications and administrative duties.
The defense force is truly a local-level organization. They take their talents, augment them with training in emergency management and community emergency response, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency courses, and apply them when possible.
“Everybody has a talent or a specialty and we try to utilize members based on what they can do,” said 1st. Lt. Randy Brooks, company commander for Charlie Company. “If someone has experience with computers or communications or is an emergency medical technician, we try to put those abilities and that knowledge to work.”
A well-regulated militia, according to the Constitution, is necessary to the security of a free state. Federal law defines the militia as “all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and … under 45 years of age” who are, or plan to become, U.S. citizens. The militia also includes women who are members of the National Guard.
Federal law further divides the militia into unorganized — those not serving in any military capacity — and organized, including the National Guard and state-approved defense forces.
The state militias served in World War I and World War II when the federal government called on the state National Guards to fight in the wars.
Still, prior to 1973, the Virginia National Guard was pretty much a state-controlled, organized militia. It acted as an arm of law enforcement, security and relief when faced with flood, disaster and lawlessness within the state, except in times of dire national emergency.
That role changed when the federal military became all volunteer and federal rules were rewritten to include the Guard under federal purview. Federal laws later were passed to give the states the right to form their own military forces: Enter the Virginia Defense Force.
“The National Guard is considered the state’s defense force, but when the Guard is activated, our job is to be there to assure the state still has a defense force available,” Brooks said. “We’re a force-multiplier and get called up to work with the Guard in any capacity we can to help them in their mission in a state emergency.”
Statewide, the force includes four brigades, including three general-purpose brigades with members cross-trained in communications and other emergency responses. The force also has a fixed-wing aviation battalion with members supplying their own airplanes, a military police battalion, a medical battalion, a riverine battalion for patrolling the state’s rivers and a training battalion.
“The National Guard has a national focus and the defense force is state-focused,” said Col. Michael Lawson, of Troy. “If [smaller jurisdictions] had to deal with a major snowstorm or wildfire in the Blue Ridge, they could request our services from the governor and we would go in and help in whatever capacity needed, from communications at the emergency operations center to additional emergency medical personnel. Whatever they need.”
“We are strictly here for the state. We can’t be called up and sent overseas. Our function is strictly in the commonwealth, much like the National Guard used to be,” Brooks said. “We do a lot of community support at events like the Albemarle County Fair, where we’ll set up in the field, provide traffic control and security.”
They also recruit.
“That’s where they found me,” laughed Sgt. Michael Chen, Charlie Company’s non-commissioned officer. “My company, Line-X, had a booth at the Greene County Fair and we kept talking about it. I didn’t think I really had the time to commit to it because of running my business, but with a little bit of prodding I decided to give it a shot.”
Chen, 45, has embraced the defense force role. Like many members, he has augmented the company’s mission with personally purchased gear. He even purchased a used Hummer — the civilian version of a military high-mobility, multipurpose-wheeled vehicle, a HMMWV in military parlance and a Humvee in soldier slang — for personal use and for use with the agency, should the need arise.
“I’ve always had the thought in my mind that serving in the military was a good thing,” Chen said. “When I realized I did have the time and this was one way to serve, I decided to do it. The commitment is whatever time you can put into it and what you can do for as long as you want to,” Chen said. “If something happens and you can’t participate regularly, you can submit a letter of resignation.”
For Brooks, who previously served, it’s a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“People were looking for a way to serve after 9/11 and, with age creeping up and bad knees, it pretty much prevented me from going back in [the active military],” he said. “This is a way to serve the community, the commonwealth and the country. I’ve never regretted joining and now my son is also serving. It’s the kind of thing that appeals to a lot of families and we have a lot of members sharing last names. We like it that way.”
“It’s kind of a big family, but there’s always room for more,” Chen laughed.