F-35 preparations begin

Gen. Cray updates Rotarians on National Guard’s latest

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter
Steven Cray

Steven Cray

From the initial preparations for basing new F-35 fighter jets, to the management of post-war budget cuts, to the handling of mental health in the wake of recent soldier suicides, Vermont Adjutant Gen. Steven Cray had a lot to talk about when he visited with the Essex Rotary Club last week.

Cray, a resident of Essex and airman of nearly 30 years who is on leave from a commercial pilot job with American Airlines, is coming up on two years as leader of the Vermont National Guard. He was Rotary’s guest speaker last Wednesday during the club’s weekly luncheon at The Essex Resort.

A member of the Vermont Air National Guard since his college days at the University of Vermont, Cray described how the unit has made its first steps toward a controversial upgrade to the F-35 warplanes.

Roughly 50 F-35 implementation specialists have spent time at the Air Guard’s headquarters at Burlington International Airport this year, he said, and Vermont pilots will begin F-35 training flights at other Air Force bases later this year. Cray doesn’t expect the new fleet — a replacement of the Guard’s current F-16 fleet — to arrive for another four years.

“That’s our future,” he said. “It sets the course for the next 40 years for the Air Guard.”

The Air Force chose Burlington as an F-35 base last December over other locations after conducting an Environmental Impact Statement. A segment of Vermont residents still strongly oppose the decision, and continue to challenge it in court.

While the U.S. Air Force has demonstrated a commitment to invest in Vermont long-term with the F-35, Cray said the same can’t be said for the U.S. Army’s treatment of the Vermont Army National Guard — or the national guard system nationwide. Since the end of the Iraq War and with a final drawdown set for this year in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is budgeting for peace time. Cray said that is affecting expectations for active duty units and National Guard units, which were built up into active duty-like units after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

“The decreased size of the Army is putting a lot of downward pressure on the Army Guard, and there are a lot of cuts being proposed,” Cray said. “There is a lot of pressure on us each and every day to find efficiencies and to do as much as we can with limited resources.”

He said a loss of U.S. Army investment would affect the Vermont Army National Guard’s response capabilities for state emergencies. It may mean a return to the pre-9-11 days when National Guard members spent more time on community improvement projects than in war posturing.

Two weeks before Cray’s talk, Guard member Josh Pallotta, of Colchester, committed suicide after battling posttraumatic stress disorder. Pallotta served with approximately 1,500 other Vermont Guard members in Afghanistan in 2010. Cray acknowledged the difficulty some soldiers are having with psychological battle wounds and said the mental health specialists at the Guard and the Veterans Affairs office need help from those suffering or their friends and family members to ensure helpful services are used.

“Unfortunately, a lot of it falls on the individual soldier or airman,” said Cray, “so we have to rely on (their friends and family) to identify problems. (Suicide) is not just a problem in the Guard, it’s a national problem. It’s something we have to deal with as a community.”

Cray has not heard, nor does he expect, a heightened alert for deployment given the United States’ renewed air campaigns over Iraq and Syria. He said only about 10 of the roughly 4,000 Vermont Guard members are currently deployed.