WASHINGTON – There's been no official casualty report from this week's meeting of National Guard leaders in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but the damage could be high. Sunburns. Hangovers. Lost golf balls.
A grateful nation weeps.
And you haven't even got the bill yet.
Bunkered in the exclusive Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas and surrounded by spectacular views of the Caribbean, dozens of generals and several hundred other senior Guard leaders battled with Power Point presentations and fought through sessions on strategic planning and strategic imperatives.
Not for too long, though. The conference agenda left plenty of time for the links and the beach.
Their spouses were along for the ride at taxpayer expense, too. They maintained a rugged schedule of shopping, dining and parties.
The title of the event? "Guarding Paradise with Culture and Spice."
Three times a year, the Adjutants General Association of the United States gathers to wrestle with the challenges facing the Army and Air National Guard. Two of the meetings are held in Washington, D.C., and the third is held in a location that depends on which state or U.S. territory is willing to act as host.
Past venues outside the D.C. area have included Anchorage, Alaska, Williamsburg, Va., and Omaha, Neb. Next year's is Jackson Hole, Wyo. State and federal tax dollars pay for the travel and lodging.
No doubt National Guard officials, who've seen the force stretched to the breaking point by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have plenty to discuss. But when the Guard can barely make ends meet — there's a $47.5 billion deficit in the equipment accounts — maybe it's best for the brass not to hold a meeting in a tropical paradise while the troops are dodging roadside bombs in Iraq or filling sandbags along the Mississippi River.
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington said the Virgin Islands meeting sends the wrong signal at the wrong time.
"This is the kind of thing that hurts morale," Ashdown said. "These are the bosses. This is an exclusive club. When they're taking a little R&R, it sends the message that they're not taking their funding shortfalls as seriously as they should."
The Guard said it could not immediately calculate the exact cost of the event, which began Monday and ended Friday evening, because not every state sends the same number of people and airfare fees can vary.
According to information on the Adjutants General Association's Web site, government rates for rooms at Frenchman's Reef go for $240 a night. A single round-trip ticket from Reagan National in Washington to St. Thomas costs about $800.
In an e-mail, Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin McAndrews said the meeting in St. Thomas was a "very important conference" that was approved by the Defense Department.
With the Guard working in so many different places, coordination among state leaders and senior officials in Washington is critical and regular gatherings fine-tune those working relationships, he said.
Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the association's president and adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard, said in an e-mailed statement that spouses travel on federal dollars because "they attend meetings to discuss and learn about items such as family programs that care for our troops and their families."