By Don Branum
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Greg Knight and several women leaders within the Vermont National Guard spoke via teleconference with members of the Vermont Commission on Women March 10.
In opening remarks, Knight said he has taken action to create a diverse climate and to provide an environment where innovation can thrive.
“In some instances, our actions are a first for the Vermont National Guard, leading to the sharing of best practices with other states and the National Guard Bureau,” he said.
Knight listed several examples, such as how the Vermont Air National Guard established the Priority One Task Force, which is focused on improving recruiting, retention, diversity and inclusion at the 158th Fighter Wing. The task force received the Air National Guard’s Diversity Team Award for 2020. Also, the 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain) in January became the first battalion-level Army National Guard combat unit authorized to recruit women, and the Vermont Guard sent a request last week to allow the 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry to do the same.
“We might not just be the first state to do that, we might also be the second,” Knight said. “But opening the unit isn’t enough; we’re going to continue our efforts to draw women into combat arms and increase those opportunities. It’s significant to us, and we’ve certainly had some national attention for being the first state to do so.”
Knight acknowledged that the Vermont Guard is not where he would like it to be in terms of demographics but said he believes the Vermont Commission on Women can help. Currently, about 20 percent of assigned personnel are women, including 50 percent of first sergeants and 50 percent of chief master sergeants in the Vermont Air National Guard. So far this year, 31 percent of new enlistees into the wing are women, and the percentage of people of color in the wing is double the percentage of people of color in the state of Vermont, Knight said.
In contrast, women in the Vermont Army National Guard comprise just 15 percent of assigned personnel, whereas the retention rate for women is 87.7 percent, compared to 89.5 percent for men. Two female senior NCOs concurrently completed the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy for the first time, and the Vermont Guard has promoted two women to colonel within the last year.
He also said the Vermont National Guard needs to look outside its own borders to become a more diverse recruiter.
“I think we’re missing the boat by not reaching out and helping to grow our diversity by getting those folks who come off an active-duty installation, irrespective of their service, and give them a reason to come to Vermont,” Knight said.
“We’ll never be a total rainbow because Vermont is not a rainbow, and the surrounding area’s not a rainbow,” said Air Force Col. Diane Roberts, the Vermont Guard’s joint chief of diversity and inclusion. “But hopefully we can partner with our local communities to be more inclusive and start attracting a more diverse population that we can draw upon. In the meantime, if you look at our recruiting team, you look at the future of the 158th Fighter Wing. We have women and people from minority groups joining our ranks who will be part of our future. We have a diverse recruiting team that speaks to those issues and ensures we’re creating an inclusive environment.”
Knight mentioned Staff Sgt. Selena Correa and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kirby Addison as two NCOs who are in a position to help bolster the Vermont Guard’s retention of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
“Because of their advocacy and innovation, this past summer we held three forums on racial injustice,” Knight said. “We had well over 200 attendees. That is not a one-and-done.”
Guardsmen will continue to have conversations related to building inclusive environments as part of a Defense Department-mandated stand down, Knight said.
“We’re not afraid to have those conversations in the Vermont National Guard,” he said. “Operational tempo doesn’t help us, but we’re going to keep this on the front burner.”
Encouragingly, Knight said he has seen conversations happening at lower levels within the organization.
“Someone forwarded me an email conversation with three young company commanders,” he said. “I didn’t prompt the discussion, they did. They talked about how they can eliminate sexual harassment from their units. That gives me hope that I’ve got junior leaders coming up in this organization who are going to truly change the culture and be able to sustain it.”
Knight said he is committed to providing information in a proactive and forthright manner.
“For me, warts and all, we’re your Guard,” he said. “That’s the expectation of communication that will transcend me. I’m just putting the pieces in place,” Knight said. “I have no issue sharing information, good or bad, but I’ll also tell you what I’m going to do about it.” Part of the communication process will involve regular updates to the Vermont House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, and the Vermont Senate Committee on Government Operations.
The Vermont Commission on Women, established in 1964 as the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, is a non-partisan state government commission governed by 16 commissioners. Its membership also includes three staff and an advisory council of representatives from 27 organizations serving women and girls in Vermont, according to the commission’s website.