The California National Guard is returning to Central America this month, with four missions planned for December and January, after a new federal law quashed efforts in the state Legislature and courts to block the controversial assignments by the Pentagon.
The issue of routinely sending National Guard units, once thought of as "weekend warriors," to a foreign combat zone has put some state governors--traditionally the commanders of each state's guard units--at loggerheads with the Pentagon. The quarrel may be headed for a court fight on constitutional grounds.
In the meantime, the 146th Tactical Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard, based at Van Nuys Airport, will dispatch two of its C-130 planes and about 28 crewmen to Central America on Friday, a spokesman for the state adjutant general's office said last week. The 1,500-person wing is the largest unit of its kind in the National Guard.
Program Started in 1978
The crews will do the same jobs that the unit, and other Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units from around the country, have been doing since 1978 under a program named "Volant Oak," the adjutant general's office said.
They will be based at Howard Air Force Base just outside Panama City for 15 days, flying supplies and passengers between U. S. diplomatic missions and military bases in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Three similar missions, each with three planes and about 45 crew members, will leave Van Nuys on Dec. 26, Jan. 9 and Jan 16. There will be at least some California air guardsmen in Central America from Saturday until Jan. 31. When the missions overlap, there will be as many as 100 guardsmen and six planes.
They are the first California Guard assignments to Central America since a two-week mission by three planes and 60 men of the same California Air Guard unit in June, which went ahead despite efforts to block it by opponents of the Reagan Administration's policy in Central America.
Mission in Thailand
Since then, the 146th sent one plane to Thailand in October and on Dec. 6 sent one plane to ferry a load of Tennessee and Florida guardsmen to Ecuador in South America.
The dispute over the proper role of the National Guard has its origin in the changed nature of what was once called the "state militia."
Under the Pentagon's "total force" doctrine, during the past 10 years National Guard units from all states have been converted from their longtime role as local disaster fighters and third-string military reserves into an integral part of the regular Army and Air Force.
The quarrel over the use of the California Guard in Central America began in April when it was revealed that a group of 30 Spanish-speaking military police was sent to protect other states' guardsmen who were building a road in Honduras. That was followed by the revelation that the Air National Guard had regularly been flying the little-known Volant Oak missions throughout the region for eight years.
Opponents of the Guard's involvement in Central America took action in the courts and the Legislature.
Strip Governor's Power
On one front, a lawsuit sought to strip Gov. George Deukmejian--legally, the commander of the state's guard in peacetime--of his power to agree to Central American assignments by the Pentagon.
The Legislature passed a bill that would have required Deukmejian to notify the Legislature whenever guardsmen were sent to Central America.
When Deukmejian vetoed the bill, its backers began pushing for an amendment to the state Constitution, which would have required legislative approval before the governor could allow guardsmen to be sent to any country where there had been armed conflict within two years.
Backers of both efforts agreed last week that their cause has been stalled by the passage of the Montgomery Amendment, a federal law that went into effect Oct. 15.
The amendment, a rider to a defense authorization bill signed by President Reagan in October, provides that "a governor may not withhold approval of overseas training for a National Guard unit because of any objections he or she may have to the location, type, purpose or schedule of the training," said a spokesman for the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau.
Lawsuit Being Dropped
The lawsuit was brought by two groups, Americans for Democratic Action and the military law task force of the National Lawyers Guild. The suit, which was scheduled for a hearing in a Los Angeles Superior Court in February, "is moot because of the bill Congress passed," Dan Stormer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said last week.
He has already notified the attorney general that the action is being dropped, he said.
"Deukmejian could always come into court and say the federal law prevents him from challenging the assignment, and he'd probably prevail," said Bill Smith of the lawyers' guild.