BRATTLEBORO—It started with a simple request by Sharon Levenson, a registered nurse at the Veterans Administration’s outpatient clinic at the Exit 1 Industrial Park.
A few weeks ago, she read that Vermont Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Cray was elected to the post of adjutant general.
“I thought it would be a good idea to invite him to the clinic and have see the work we’re doing,” she said.
To her surprise, Cray said yes, and came to the clinic on April 18, accompanied by state Command Sgt. Maj. Forest Glodgett.
Cray, 49, was elected to the post of adjutant general in late February and assumed the rank of major general that goes with the job.
He succeeds Maj. Gen. Thomas Drew, who took the position last summer after Maj. Gen. Brian Dubie resigned to be deputy commander of the Pentagon’s U.S. Northern Command in Colorado.
Drew chose not to seek election, and Cray, who had been assistant adjutant general, outpolled three other candidates for the job. Vermont is the only state where the adjutant general position is chosen through a legislative vote.
Cray is in charge of the 4,000 men and women in the Vermont Army and Air National Guard and oversees a combined state and federal budget of more than $210 million. He said last week that his first priority was visiting all of the units scattered around the state.
“It’s important to meet and talk to those folks,” he said.
But he added that it was just as important to him to talk with the people who run the medical facilities, such as the Brattleboro clinic, that are taking care of Guard members who are dealing with health issues related to their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Community-based clinics, Cray said, “are doing great things for our veterans.”
Just as high up on his to-do list, he said, is figuring out how the Vermont Guard will deal with the likelihood of reduced budgets in the coming years.
Leading a combat-hardened group of men and women is a different experience for Guard generals. But Cray said that with the integration of the Guard and Reserve into the Air Force’s and Army’s force structure, citizen soldiers are being asked to shoulder a heavier burden than the Guard members of the 1970s and 1980s, who were ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the type of missions today’s units are called upon to do.
“It is a different time for us,” he said. “The last 11 years we’ve been at war, and resources have been available for us to do our jobs. We built an operational force with the best equipment and the best training. Our nation can’t afford to just let it atrophy. We have to continue to invest in the training and equipment maintenance to keep our force at a high level.”
Cray said he can see that there will be a trade-off between spending and readiness, but that it would a good idea, as active duty units are drawn down, “to keep the Guard and Reserve at a higher state of readiness” to be prepared for future conflicts at a lower cost.
A call to serve
Cray enlisted in the Vermont Air National Guard while he was a student at the University of Vermont. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1984 and moved up the ranks, holding a variety of command, supervisory, and staff positions in the 134th Fighter Squadron, based at Burlington International Airport. He has more than 2,500 flight hours, mostly in the F-16 fighter.
He realizes that enlisting in the Guard is a tougher sell to people in a post 9/11 world, and that the commitment has “changed dramatically” from the post-Vietnam era, when being in the Guard was just serving one weekend a month with two weeks of active duty training each year and the chance of deployment into combat was remote.
“The world has changed, and the young men and women who join our ranks today do so knowing that they could serve their country in an overseas capacity,” he said. “They also know they could be helping in a humanitarian aspect, or peacekeeping, or a whole range of thing that the National Guard does. And they’re excited to do so.”
“I tell folks if they have a calling to serve others and be part of an organization that is bigger than yourself, that they should real think seriously about joining the National Guard,” Cray said. “Even as we draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Guard is a community-based force that will be here to help Vermonters.”
But even with all the uncertainty about what his soldiers and airmen will face in the coming years, Cray said he is excited to be leading the “Green Mountain Boys” and living up to the legacy of Vermont’s citizen-soldiers from Ticonderoga and Gettysburg, to the “Sunni Triangle” in Iraq and eastern Afghanistan.
“We do what Vermonters do best, and overcome and adapt and make the best of a situation,” he said.