What is the Florida State Guard? Deactivated in 1947, reactivated 2022

David Lyons

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The revived Florida State Guard has opened for business with a $10 million budget, a campaign to attract 400 volunteers and now, a new director to lead them.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that retired Marine Corps. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Graham, who grew up in Miami and served as an airman in Iraq, will lead the volunteer civilian force that originated during World War II but was deactivated in 1947.

The State Guard, the governor emphasized, would be “an emergency-focused all-volunteer force” that would help with recoveries from disasters such as hurricanes.

But there would be occasions when members would be armed if necessary, the governor’s office reaffirmed Wednesday.

“The members of the State Guard will be trained and armed as needed, similar to the National Guard,” said Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, in an email.

The state guard, like 22 others elsewhere in the nation, would support the National Guard and would be trained and authorized to undertake similar duties.

“That means troops do not carry weapons for every activation, because that is not always needed, but they do have the necessary training and authorization, and they can be armed if the situation warrants it,” Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel before the Legislature provided $10 million in funding this spring.

“The Florida State Guard will support emergency response efforts in the event of a hurricane, natural disasters, and other state emergencies in Florida,” she said. “Other state emergencies could theoretically include civil unrest, but we do not anticipate civil unrest occurring.”

Emergencies only

The possibility of the State Guard being an armed guard triggered sharp criticism from the governor’s political opponents, who asserted he is seeking to operate a “private army.”

Earlier this year, Congressman and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist went so far to assert that the State Guard was destined to be the governor’s “own handpicked secret police.”

But in a Wednesday statement, DeSantis emphasized that the State Guard’s formation was precipitated by federal government policies of “kicking out” military service members who failed to comply with the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“The U.S. military has been kicking out great service members over the Biden administration’s unacceptable COVID vaccine mandate, and they are even targeting members of the National Guard,” DeSantis said.

“The bureaucrats in D.C. who control our National Guard have also refused to increase the number of guardsmen despite our increasing population, leaving Florida with the second worst National Guardsman to resident ratio,” he added. “By reestablishing the Florida State Guard under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Graham, we have a great opportunity to expand our capability to help people in times of need or disaster.”

Company A, 1st Battalion, of the Florida State Guard is seen in this historical photo at Leon County Armory. The Florida Defense Force was renamed the Florida State Guard in the 1940s. Photo by Harvey Eugene Slade, via Florida Memory, in the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Short-lived retirement

Graham’s resume dwarfs the basic requirements listed in a State Guards online post seeking a director. It called for “significant leadership and management ability to not only control FLSG elements but have the capability to build and maintain healthy relationships across the state of Florida.”

It also required a bachelor’s degree, a valid driver’s license and five years of management experience.

Graham enlisted in the Marines at age 17, graduated from Auburn University with a bachelors degree. After he was commissioned, he was assigned to the Coalition and Special Warfare Division, Counter Drug Branch. He graduated from flight school in Pensacola and served as a Marine pilot for approximately two years, flying in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Graham then served as Joint Terminal Attack Controller in Iraq, and was selected to serve as a task force commander in a Marine antiterrorism battalion. In 2005, he was awarded a Purple Heart.

He retired from the Marine Corps. Reserves just a few months ago.

“Two months ago I retired from the Marine Corps. as a Lieutenant Colonel after two decades plus of service, and once I saw the opening to become the Director of the State Guard, I decided that two months of retirement was all I needed,” he said in the statement from the Governor’s office.

$10 million for a 400-member force

Last Thursday, DeSantis, who came up with the idea to reactivate the State Guard, signed a bill into law authorizing $10 million in operating funds. The financial allocation and the guard’s proposed size, which is now 400, are larger than what was originally advertised by the governor last year. At the time, the cost was placed at $3.5 million and the ranks were to be 200.

Griffin, the deputy press secretary, attributed the growth in funding and participants to “a high level of interest from applicants.”

“We recognized the need for a more robustly capable guard,” Griffin said. At a Tallahassee news conference, DeSantis said 1,200 people have applied thus far.

The National Guard annually receives $454 million in U.S. Government funding and $18 million from the state.

DeSantis has argued that the State Guard offers the state more options to respond to emergencies, a responsibility that he said placed a strain on the 12,000-member National Guard, whose personnel are called upon for overseas duty in addition to their duties in the state. This past year, the National Guard responded to storm relief needs and even helped administer COVID-19 vaccines.

But the National Guard also answered the call to help with the Pentagon’s overseas missions. For example, some 160 Florida guardsmen trained members of the Ukrainian military before the Russian invasion of that country. Some members are also performing U.S.- Mexico border duty in Texas and New Mexico.

By contrast, no members of the Florida State Guard would leave the state.

The new State Guard makes Florida the 23rd state to create such a force. The others include New York, Texas and California, as well as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The state guards were authorized by Congress decades ago, along with larger National Guards that fall under federal jurisdiction.

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.