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'Commander' Palin and the Alaska National Guard

George Bryson

When presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain introduced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate last Friday, the Arizona senator emphasized her role as the commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard.

Later, when questions were raised about Palin's lack of experience in national and international affairs, the McCain campaign pointed again to her military command experience as governor. Some reporters have tried to follow up.

"Can you tell me one decision that she made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard?" CNN journalist Campbell Brown asked Monday while interviewing McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds. "Just one?"

Bounds couldn't, because Palin has never personally ordered the state guard to do anything.

Instead, here's what he said: "Any decision she has made as the commander of the (Alaska) National Guard that's deployed overseas is more of a decision than Barack Obama's been making as he's been running for president for the last two years."

However, the governor has no command authority overseas or anywhere in the United States other than Alaska, said Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, the service commander of the Alaska National Guard.

"When members of the National Guard are federalized, they work for the president," Campbell said Wednesday. "It's not just overseas. They could be federalized to go to other states or they could even be federalized in the state."

Occasions in which Palin retains command authority over the 4,200-member Alaska National Guard are whenever the Guard responds to in-state natural disasters and civic emergencies, said Campbell, who also serves as the commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Some examples?

"We've deployed individuals in state service all over the state under Sarah Palin," he said. "We had defense men down in Seward for the (Mount) Marathon run doing security.

"Out west and northwest we had erosion problems, and the National Guard was involved in some of the protection out there. About three days ago, the Army National Guard picked up a lady from Little Diomede (Island) . . . at the request of state troopers."

Did Palin directly approve each of those activities?

No, Campbell said. The governor has granted him the authority to act on his own in most cases, including life-or-death emergencies - when a quick response is required - and minor day-to-day operations.

"Some authorities have been given to me that she has acknowledged that I can execute," he said. "For others I have to ask her each time."

The recent decision to deploy a C-17 cargo plane from the Alaska Air National Guard to Louisiana to assist during the Hurricane Gustav response was an occasion in which Campbell briefed the governor's office and sought its approval, he said. Chief of Staff Mike Nizich signed off on it. Last year, Palin journeyed abroad to visit 500 members of the Alaska Army

National Guard who were stationed in northern Kuwait for 15 months. She also stopped at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to visit wounded Alaskans, including regular Army troops based at Fort Richardson.

The journey marked the first time that Palin had traveled overseas, according to Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman in the governor's office.

The flooding that occurred in Fairbanks in late July - for which the Guard sent trucks north to provide clean drinking water - didn't require the governor's approval, Campbell said.

Natural disasters are fairly sporadic, said Jeremy Zidek, the public information officer for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which is part of Campbell's department.

Last year, during Palin's first year as governor, there wasn't much action, Zidek said. "Thankfully, we didn't have any major disasters."

In 2006, however, during former Gov. Frank Murkowski's last year in office, the Guard assisted at a tragic fire at a schoolhouse and church in Hooper Bay.

The Alaska National Guard receives about 75 percent of its funding from the federal government, Campbell said. All the federal funding is pre-allocated by Congress.

The state maintains Army National Guard bases in 76 locations in Alaska and Air National Guard bases in three locations.


By GEORGE BRYSON