by Rana Fayez
Maj. gen. Francis Vavala is the longest serving adj. gen. in the United States and has served under three different governors for the past 16 years. Delaware Business got the chance to sit down with maj. gen. Francis Vavala to get to know the man behind the uniform.
DB: How long have you been with the Delaware National Guard?
MGV: It feels like forever, I was a “guard brat” growing up. My father was a World War II veteran of the U.S. Army. He came back as master sergeant and used the G.I. Bill to go to college, where he received a degree in economics from Wharton School of Business. He continued on to work for the State and joined the Delaware National Guard about the time I was born in 1947. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Delaware National Guard, which began his career and effectively my career as well. As a kid I would follow him around everywhere, he would take me to play at the armories.
I can remember the National Guard in the in the 1950s and beyond, my father introduced me to the organization as it was a rite of passage for me to join. He retired as a colonel. In 1967, I joined and served for three years as an enlisted soldier. In 1969, I went to officer candidate school, graduated and received my commission in June of 1970. My total official service is 48 years. In reality, it probably goes back to almost 60 years.
DB: At what moment did you decide you wanted to be a member of the National Guard?
MGV: That’s difficult to determine because it was ingrained, it was expected. It just happened. It was a rite of passage. Initially, I never thought that my career would span 48 plus years, when I first joined the organization it was a six year term for the enlisted people. I thought I would serve the time I signed up for and leave soon after, but I stayed. It might be my interpretation of the old Army phrase, “be all that you can be” and went to officer candidate school. You catch that fire and desire to exceed expectations and be all that you can be. Be the best platoon leader, be the company commander. You do everything you can. But the real important thing about this is the story shouldn’t focus on me, it’s not about me. It’s larger than life. It’s about service, it’s about the Delaware National Guard. It’s about the young people that sit in these seats right here, these great Americans. They inspired me, they keep the old man going. They tolerate me and that really helps to motivate and continue to drive me.
All of us do all that we can every day to make the Delaware National Guard better. We’ve done a lot to make the Delaware National Guard more visible and valued in the State and in our local communities because our folks willingly get out there and they’re woven into the fabric of our community, they’re visible and people appreciate it. Today’s National Guard unlike the one I remember. Post-WWII up to Desert Storm, the National Guard was a strategic reserve. Even then, it was not as equipped as its strategic counterparts. We used to get a lot of antiquated hand- me-downs and we worked with what we had. In our case, the Army and Navy realized they couldn’t complete Desert Storm without us. We started to get the same type of training and equipment as our counterparts. After 9/11 the country realized that there was no way they can condone this multifaceted asymmetric war that we were involved in without the men and women of our national guard. That became a new-found training and equipment, a new-found respect for our formations. It’s all because the great job our men and women have done since 9/11.
Currently, we have the best equipped, best trained and most veteran force we have ever had in our National Guard. We are the hometown force with the global reach. The fact of the matter, this is what our citizens both at the local and national level, we do it at a fraction of the cost that our counterparts do. We do not operate out of huge facilities with golf courses and bowling alleys. We operate out of a small compact base without a lot of accouterments, we have the ability to serve to meet the nation’s needs. We live and we work in the local community. We’re a part of your church group, your exercise group. You only use us when you need us, so you’re only paying for it on an active basis when the country calls.
We have that two-fold mission to fight the nation’s wars overseas and under a state emergency in Delaware. We report directly to the Governor, he can activate the National Guard for a national emergency.
We are the hometown force with the global reach.
The fact that there’s an opportunity here in the guard to serve your state and nation and to pursue a career in your field in whatever you desire is amazing. Where else can you serve your nation and your state, wear the uniform on the weekends and then go back to the civilian sector? You come out and you’re trained, you bring the great skills you’ve acquired in the civilian sector to benefit you while you’re in uniform. There’s military skill and there’s also ancillary skills that can be combined here and overseas. I’m proud to be a guardsman. Best organization in the world.
DB: What was your most defining moment?
MGV: I am three ranks higher than I ever thought I would be. My appointment as the adj. gen. and promotion to maj. gen. is pretty major, that would probably have to be the big meaningful moment. Prior to that was the decision to become an officer and get a commission.
DB: What is your favorite moment in your career so far?
MGV: The real underscoring of my career was rising to the command level, it was one of those things that I really enjoyed being a staff officer. Being a platoon leader and such. The higher up you go, the less interactions you have with your staff. It comes with the job, you try to get out as much as you can, but you’re insulated. Even when you go out, you’re shown what people want you to see, not so much what you need to see. It’s the nature of the position that you become more insulated and detached. The job pulls you elsewhere I guess. Wherever I am, I make sure I’m representing the National Guard in the best way possible.
The National Guard has the responsibility of both the nation and state, we’re more grassroots than our counterparts. We’re more connected and that makes us so much more valuable and successful in emergency situations in the state. We know the first line of emergency responders by name, they know us and have confidence in us. It makes us much more effective to be able to assist the state because of the relationships and networks we build.
DB: If you could give advice to someone who wants to follow your footsteps, what would you say?
MGV: If you seriously want to serve your country and your state and you’re not sure of how you want to do it, you want to pursue a civilian career, it’s the best possible job in America. Any of us in uniform are always glad to talk to anyone about service in uniform. All the benefits that come with military service are available to all the members of the National Guard with Army and Air. Young people don’t always look at retirement, but I can tell you that you decide to make a career out of the military service with the guard, you have healthcare opportunities, you have educational opportunities, there are so many benefits that are associated with our service that just are not as available as they used to be in corporate America. We have the best plans.
Never did I think back in 1967 I’d still be here in 2015 serving the National Guard of Delaware. It ain’t about me; it’s about this great organization.
James DeChene is the Chamber's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.