By Kirk Carapezza
The Vermont National Guard has a new leader.
Brig. Gen. Steven Cray of Essex Junction has been elected as the next adjutant general to lead members of the Vermont Army and Air National Guard. Cray defeated three other candidates: Col. Michael Bullock, Col. Darryl Ducharme and South Burlington attorney and F-35 critic James Marc Leas. Adjutant General Thomas Drew did not seek re-election.
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With federal defense cuts looming, a joint session of the Vermont House and Senate overwhelmingly voted Thursday for Cray, who has spent his entire 30-year career with the Vermont Air Guard. Lawmakers said he was best-suited to lead the Guard during difficult financial times.
“I consider the Vermont National Guard an extension of my family. I literally grew up in this unit, so I have a sincere desire to continue to see it succeed,” Cray said shortly after the vote.
Cray trained as a pilot and flew the F-16 fighter jet for 18 years. He has been a part-time Guard member, balancing his work as a commercial pilot for America Airlines. In 2001, Cray commanded the unit that flew cover over New York City in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then in 2007, he was promoted to brigadier general under Adjutant General Michael Dubie.
Cray had spent the past four months campaigning for Vermont’s top military post, traveling around the state and meeting one-on-one with lawmakers in Montpelier. He said campaigning didn’t come naturally, but it did pay off – earning him 125 of 173 votes cast.
“It was very awkward experience to start off with,” Cray said, standing outside the House chamber, surrounded by his family and other Guard members. Cray noted that Vermont and South Carolina are the only two states that elect their adjutant general, forcing him to seek the support of legislators.
“It’s been a great experience for me because I would have probably never had the opportunity to travel literally around the four corners of this state,” Cray said.
Cray’s excitement, however, was dampened by stalled budget negotiations in Washington. He will take the helm as the Pentagon is warning that the “vast majority” of civilian defense employees could face furloughs if across-the-board federal spending cuts take effect next week. On Wednesday, the day before his election, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said those cuts known in Washington-speak as sequestration would affect most of the nation’s 800,000 civilian workers. Cray said the Guard has notified certain members of potential sequester-related furloughs.
“If sequestration is enacted there will be a big impact specifically on civilians and that translates into some of our military technicians who are civilians as well as military members,” Cray said. “There could be a budget impact that will affect Vermont.”
Leading up to the vote, lawmakers were also looking at how the candidates would respond to the federal decision expected this spring whether to base the next generation of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport in South Burlington. Cray has reiterated that basing the F-35 with the Vermont Air National Guard is critically important to the future of the Guard without a menu of other missions.
“Air National Guard units around our country have transitioned from flying missions to numerous other missions, but what does happen though is that most of those units shrink in size. And that’s something that I don’t think our state wants to see,” Cray said. “Hopefully in a few months the Secretary of the Air Force will make a positive announcement that we’re going to base the F-35s here.”
South Burlington attorney James Marc Leas, who received just four votes, said the state is not protecting jobs by advocating for the F-35s. He and other opponents have pointed to an Air Force environmental impact study that shows noise created by the jets will render hundreds of homes around the airport unsuitable for residential use.
“We’re supporting the National Guard,” Leas said. “We want them to have a mission where they can actually help our state. We need them – there are going to be hurricanes. So we’re not looking for them to lose jobs, we just want them to have jobs that won’t put people in the surrounding communities at risk.”
As adjutant general, Cray will be the senior uniformed officer responsible for training and equipping members of the Vermont Army and Air National Guard. He will also serve as head of the State Military Department and Veterans Affairs.
The change of command will occur at Camp Johnson next Friday – the same day sequestration cuts are expected to go into effect.