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For The Greater Good
Interview with General Martha Rainville

By Suzanne Gillis

Photos courtesy of Vermont National Guard

Vermont Woman publisher Suzanne Gillis and editor Margaret Michniewicz spoke with Major General Martha Rainville in her office at Fort Johnson in Colchester. Rainville is the first woman adjutant general in the 364-year history of the National Guard. Elected in 1997 at age 38, she ran against Adjutant General Donald Edwards, who had held the position for 16 years. Clearly, there was a great deal to cover about her 22-year career, and the U.S. military’s current reliance on the National Guard. Here are the highlights of that talk.

VW: You have been Adjutant General now for 7 years.  When you were first elected, you could not possibly have imagined you would be in command of Vermont's Air and Army National Guard after September 11, 2001, then called upon to provide military leadership to the soldiers assigned to duty in the Middle East. How did you draw from your military experience and personal strengths to provide the kind of leadership that one might think would be possessed by combat officers?

MR:  I have been deployed to places such as Panama but no, I have never been in combat; I have never been to the Middle East. My formal training, which led to my appointment as a Major General (two stars), has helped to prepare me for these difficult and challenging times. The one thing I miss in my current position is the ability to deploy with my team.

VW: I'm looking at this very beautiful certificate of achievement, on the wall behind your desk, that your father earned back in 1949 – obviously he must have had a great influence over you and your career choice.

MR: He did. He enlisted at age 17; he was in Pearl Harbor within 10 days after the attack, and he helped with the clean-up of that... He went on to serve 30 years in the Navy as a radioman in submarines. He retired when I was almost 11 and went back to Mississippi,  and taught electronics at a tech school.

VW: What city?

MR: Port Gibson - it’s not a city! It’s about the size of Highgate! I grew up in Navy housing. At suppertime, he would watch the news and I remember: you never spoke a word when the news was on because the coverage was of Vietnam and he was so serious about that. I was not old enough to understand the politics of Vietnam: but I understood the body counts, I understood how angry and upset he would get with the news – how tense he was with Vietnam. He had a brother in Vietnam who was shot down and rescued.

VW: Did your dad have strong feelings against the war?

MR: He won’t talk about Vietnam, won’t speak of the politics of it. He thought the protesters were wrong… He is only just beginning to talk of World War II.

VW: He must be very patriotic.

MR: The most important thing I learned from my father is that it is honorable to serve in the military… He keeps me straight… I'm not sure he knows what I do (laughing)!

VW: What motivated you to run for Adjutant General? What was the mood of the Air and Army Guard at the time?

MR: It’s hard to pinpoint, but there was growing dissatisfaction and a lack of respect for the leadership that came to a head over an effort to change the name of the Green Mountain Boys, which the Air and Army, both men and women, rejected, because we felt we were part of a proud tradition. When I was first approached to run, I just laughed. But I soon felt that I had to get out of the Guard, or stand up there, and morally and ethically lead in the way I felt I was being pushed to lead.

VW: Were you afraid of retribution, running against an incumbent?

MR: There was a real fear that if it was known that the guardsmen were supporting someone other than the incumbent, that their career would be at risk.

VW: What was the tipping point when you began to feel that your grassroots support, among the guardsmen and with the Legislature, was working in your favor?

MR: The tone of the legislators’ questions changed, and many became more outspoken in their support. They started to listen more closely to what the guardsmen were saying.

VW: Perhaps one of the major differences between you and your predecessor is that you have a kind of openness and accessibility that makes people feel that they can come to you in a context of safety.

MR: I think that is something we tried to establish here in the office -- we literally turned the lights ON when we came in here. Funny how physical differences are important, to signal a change in leadership style. Previously – because state money was tight – they kept the lights off in the hallways to save money. Well that’s not saving a lot of money; but the hallways were dark, and the doors were shut, and people really avoided this corner of the building! So when we came in, we set up bowls of candy, we turned the lights on, we opened the doors, to make some really obvious visual changes.

VW: You were elected by the Legislature to this position; what are your background and credentials?

MR: Under Vermont statutes, there really are no specific criteria listed to qualify as an adjutant general... To be promoted in the Air Force to colonel, you have to have had air war college... These are extensive courses, on a more strategic level. It brings in training on other services, capabilities and structures; coalition structures, the nature of warfare; you get into some of the philosophy of a just war; military ethics are a part of it; and military history is a part of it... I had to meet a federal recognition board for colonel, another federal recognition board for brigadier general, and finally for major general.

VW: Do you see any similarities between what happened in Vietnam and Iraq?

MR:  I think that we’re very sensitive – this is not just my opinion –  to the potential for Iraq to become an extended, guerilla-type situation; not like Vietnam, but with the tones of Vietnam, where we don’t feel we have a lot of control over what’s happening. I think that the media, by focusing on the big events, gives a perception that’s maybe not balanced; but I think as a public we’re very sensitive to what’s happening in Iraq, and I think that’s good because that means that we question the policies, and I think that especially our generation really tries to be more informed on what’s going on in Iraq.

I think the danger is making too many parallels to Vietnam without really looking at what’s happening and what the differences are. We have to appreciate both the differences and the similarities.

VW: One major difference is that during the ten years of war in Vietnam, reporters and photojournalists filed daily reports, which were shown every night, in America and around the world – the wounded, the dying, the body bags, the coffins were a daily event. That is not happening in the Iraq war. Americans are conveniently dissociated from the reality of war; President Bush is never seen mourning or attending a soldier’s funeral, or visiting a military hospital, where there are now nearly eight thousand wounded. Are you troubled by this?

MR: I have mixed feelings, because the citizen in me says we need access; but the commander and mother in me knows how painful that is. Does it actually help people gain a perspective, or does it skew their perspective? It’s public information, but it’s the context, in relation to other news.

VW: George Bush the First wrote a book with Brent Scowcraft, A

World Transformed, in which he says that urban warfare is unwinnable, and that’s why they didn’t invade Iraq immediately after the Gulf War in the early nineties. Are you saying that technology has improved so much that urban warfare is now winnable?

MR: I would say urban warfare is winnable with a price, and technology does lower the price, and the collateral damage. If we were willing to go in to Fallujah, or into Sadr city, the slum area of Baghdad, and just clean ‘em out, we could eliminate much of the threat, we could win the war – but we’re not willing to do that. We go to extraordinary lengths to limit any collateral damage... You saw that in Najaf, with the mosque; they were fighting out of the mosque, and we did a protracted battle -- and the mosque is still there. Precision tactics were used; it takes longer; there is more risk with personnel involved, but that’s one of the ways we conduct warfare now – we don’t drop Agent Orange over a huge area, we try to limit it to just the combatants. Is it winnable? Pretty much anything is winnable when you have the might, if you don’t care what the cost is. When you care what the cost is like we do, it’s something that you don’t look at as the total solution – you’re not going to win the war with urban warfare, you're going to win it with economic improvement, and you’re going to win it with humanitarian aid, and the other aspects of influencing the country.

VW: Any question in your mind that Iraq might have been a mistake? Maybe you can’t go there in your position.

MR:  I’m trying to figure out how I can without commenting on the politics of it. My perspective is that perhaps the reasons that our guys, our troops, feel they’re needed there is that they see the human cost of what was happening under Saddam. They see the terrible conditions that Iraqis are living in – if you weren’t a Sunni Ba’athist – the poverty, no wastewater treatment, no sewage

VW: That’s not why we went in.

MR: Well, it depends. Without commenting on the politics of the reasons that were promoted most for going in there – the weapons of mass destruction – if you just look at this country, where hundreds of thousands of people were being killed because of politics, or who they were, or who they weren’t: they were oppressed; the oil was not providing food for the people – all these things were happening, and now we’ve gone in. And for whatever reason we went in, the fact is we’re there, and they have an opportunity now to form the type of democratic government that works for them – not our type, but what works within their culture; and they have the opportunity to change, and to have a more inclusive government. That’s what I hear from our soldiers and airmen who are  there – the good days are when they go out into the villages, help in the schools, see  improvements in the quality of life, and see the hope and support that the majority of Iraqis feel.

So – should we have been there? It depends on the criteria you judge it on. If you believe the only reason to go is you were told there were weapons of mass destruction – well, we haven’t seen any, or we’ve seen very low levels and very few… Is it legitimate to go in to stop genocide, to stop an oppressive regime that is destabilizing the entire region, with the hope of bringing some stability and connectivity to the global economy for the people who are there? I think that’s what needs to be discussed. When we send soldiers and airmen off  -- even if they don’t have a say in the political decision to go, or a role in the strategic nature of what’s happening there -- they do need to know that what they’re doing is good, that they are following through on their commitment, and that they are making a difference in people’s lives. Whether in the great scheme of things that feeds into another agenda or not, that’s somebody else’s concern; but they’re making a difference.

VW: So if the next President decides to go into another country for the same reasons – and there are plenty of possibilities: Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan – you would agree?

MR: We are a country that has all the blessings – liberty, and plenty. I think the Declaration of Independence says that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That means we don’t just stay within our borders and hunker down, but that we use our capability to help others have hope.

We need to be seen as someone with force that is willing to go in for the right reasons and protect the innocent. But we also have to use our military wisely, as a last resort. We need to work to build economies and global connectivity.

VW: Is diplomacy key?

MR: Diplomacy underlies everything.

VW: Who is your boss?

MR: There are two separate chains of command: the state chain, during normal operations; the Governor is Commander-In-Chief. The Guard serves at the call of the President, and he has precedence over anything else. My job is to communicate between the President and the Governor.

VW: Let’s talk about September 11, 2001. Were you as surprised as I was that the airspace over Washington and New York was unguarded for so long after the planes hit the twin towers?

MR: Radar were focused away from our shores, on the coast, but not internally. As far as what the military was set up to do, what the reasonable expectations were, they actually performed quite well. We had the military jets in the air. There had never been a hijacking where the plane itself was used as a weapon.

VW: Would the military have been able to stop Flight 93 over Pennsylvania?

MR: It may have been close. Anything happening after that I feel pretty confident would have been stopped, but the others happened so quickly, and it was out of our experience.

VW: Are we secure in Vermont?

MR: I’m feeling pretty confident. There is no absolute. There is always the unexpected, which you cannot predict. I think we have a good system of working together because we are a small state and we know each other, work together, and do a good job of assessing threats and our capabilities.

VW: What is the best part of your job?

MR: This is going to sound corny, but I love the people. I love the Guardsmen, the citizens, and even the dynamics of the whole organization, The soldiers and airmen are volunteers. They join for various reasons, but they are part of a team, and when they are called to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan or Bosnia, knowing they will be in harm’s way, they go. I am proud to be associated with them.

VW: What is the hardest part of your job?

MR: I am responsible for putting soldiers in harm’s way. No one takes that lightly. I have respect for their personal conflict. I worry about them, pray, and focus on their families. I am relieved when they return. When a brigade returns, they give me the Green Mountain Boys flag.

The hardest part is burying the ones who fall. (Rainville tears up, and we pause for a few minutes.)

VW:  If you were to meet President Bush, what would you say to him?

MR: I would love to get the chance.  You have to communicate. Why use the Guard overseas? It ought to be difficult to send the Guard overseas. It’s a community decision.  These are men and women from every community; every town and city, small and large,  is affected. They work real jobs here. They serve on our fire and police departments. They are part of our family.

VW:  What’s next for you?  Do you foresee an elected political position?

MR:  I'm due for election in the next legislative session, 2005.  I want to stay with the Guard for at least two more years. They need me now.  Then we’ll see. No one should stay in this job too long.

All I know now is that I want to do something for the greater good.  I hope that doesn't sound too pompous.

General Martha T. Rainvile

Adjutant General of the State of Vermont

-- oversees 4,000 Vermont Army and Air National Guard members.

  • Head of State Military Department - manages five divisions: state budget, $2.9 million; federal budget, $90 million.
  • Born in New London, Connecticut. Raised in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
  • BA, Education, U. Mississippi, 1979; Distinguished Graduate, USAF Basic Military Training Program, Lackland AFB, Texas, 1979.
  • Numerous military education programs throughuot career. Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, St. Michael's College, 1997.
  • Career in aircraft maintenance: F-101, F-106, T-33, C-130, A-10, and F-16 aircraft, as well as logistics, plans and mobility, and combat support. Served as VP of National Guard Association of the United States. Now serving on Defense Department's Reserve Forces Policy Board.
  • Lives in Williston; has three children: Alex, 18, who's mulling over ROTC; Nick, 21, studying engineering; Jennifer, 22, at UVM College of Medicine – has plans to apply to be an Air Force physician.
  • Exercise: Required to work out as part of job; "Required to do situps; have to work on my pushups! Exercise is a great stress relief."
  • R&R: Music: Plays classical piano; long-time church organist; "In St. Albans choir – no solos for me!"
  • Reading: Biographies, some fiction, Clancy, Grisham. Required of senior staff: “Pentagon’s New Map,” by Thomas Barnett. Liked Grisham’s "The Painted House," about small town politics.