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Strongest-ever National Guard vital to war effort, Panetta says

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta talks with Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, at the National Guard 2011 Joint Senior Leadership Conference in National Harbor, Md., Nov. 8, 2011. (Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill) (Released)

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta talks with Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, at the National Guard 2011 Joint Senior Leadership Conference in National Harbor, Md., Nov. 8, 2011. (Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill) (Released)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- At its strongest in its 375-year history, the National Guard has been indispensable to the warfight, the secretary of defense said here Tuesday.

"As we approach the milestone of the National Guard's 375th anniversary next month, ... this force is stronger, better-trained, better-equipped and - as a result - more vital to our nation's security than it has ever been," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the National Guard's 2011 Joint Senior Leadership Conference.

"It's a simple - and widely recognized - reality that we could not have sustained this war effort without the service and contributions of our Guardsmen, more than 670 of whom paid the ultimate price for their service," Panetta said.

More than 370,000 Guard members have deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Panetta noted.

"These men and women have written a new chapter in this institution's storied legacy and firmly established the Guard as a vital operational arm of our military," he said, "a force far different from the strategic reserve many envisioned during the Cold War.

"I come here with a deep respect for the contributions of the Citizen-Warriors of the National Guard," he said.

"It has long been my belief that our democracy depends on the willingness of people to serve - people who dedicate themselves to a greater cause and who are willing to fight, if necessary, to defend this country, our values and our way of life.

"That is exactly what the men and women of the National Guard have proven themselves 'Always Ready, Always There' to do."