After years of cutbacks, the citizen soldiers California turns to in times of trouble have begun to receive a new infusion of money and modernized gear.
At National Guard armories across Southern California, money for spare parts simply dried up through much of the 1990s, as the nation's military downsized.
During the worst of it two years ago, Platoon Sgt. Kenneth La Mere recalls, about 90% of the vehicles at his Gardena armory were inoperable.
"You'd have to take parts from one to fix the other so you could get out of the yard," said the 51-year-old Pico Rivera resident.
This year, the budget for repair parts has more than doubled and about 70% of his unit's vehicles are ready to go, La Mere said.
More important for the state's 16,500 Guard members--most of whom are part-time soldiers and work civilian jobs--is that additional training and education opportunities are opening up.
Until this year, Guard members were forced to make a difficult choice. They could either drill in the field with their units for two weeks during the summer or attend a school in their area of specialty.
Now, funds are available for most Guard members to do both.
"That was the main problem," said Sgt. 1st Class Clarence Johnson of Colton. "People were getting out because they weren't being trained in what they came in to do."
Improvements in Most, Not All, Areas
In addition, upgraded tanks, more heavy-lift helicopters, sophisticated armored personnel carriers and faster, beefier trucks are starting to arrive in the state as part of major equipment modernization that will span the next several years.
But no improvements came in a critical area--pay. Some Guard members who are activated and take a leave from their full-time civilian jobs receive only military pay, which can mean sharp losses of income that employers don't make up, officials say.
"It's not good," Capt. Greg Atencio said last week as he supervised a crew servicing choppers at the Los Alamitos Air National Guard base for work on the wildfires.
Atencio tries to use full-time paid technicians, active duty Guard members and part-time Guard volunteers to handle emergencies.
Primarily, the improvements are supposed to enhance the Guard's military preparedness and, eventually, place it on a more equal footing with the regular Army.
But the changes also will pay dividends during state emergencies.
"We're probably better equipped than we were during the Northridge earthquake," said Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe Jr., the Guard's top commander statewide. "And I thought we did a good job then."
Although Monroe stresses that the Guard is ready for California disasters, its preparedness has been a concern in the past. A 1993 study commissioned by former Gov. Pete Wilson found problems with inadequate training and getting equipment quickly to Southern California during the Los Angeles riots.
The Guard made a series of corrections afterward and has been tested repeatedly since then in natural disasters.
More Missions Than Other States
Commanders like to note that from 1992 through 1995, the California National Guard was called out for more emergency missions than the Guard units in all other states combined.
In the latest deployment, troops last week backed up firefighters in Northern California, while Black Hawk helicopters from Los Alamitos flew hundreds of water-dropping sorties over Southern California wildfires.
The Guard now is gearing up for possible Y2K disruptions. Some 2,000 troops will be on duty New Year's weekend around the state and hundreds more will be on call in key metropolitan areas.
The Guard's revival has a long way to go.
In a cluster of brick buildings in Long Beach, the Guard's biggest repair facility in Southern California, Sgt. Robert Argenal last week was bolting a new transmission into a 2 1/2-ton troop carrier, trying to bring the tired rig back to life.
The chalky brown, camouflaged workhorse is older than many of the soldiers who drive it.
Argenal, a mechanic from El Monte, said that training may be up but morale is down, partly because of delays in getting pay bonuses.
And he said he still has to set aside half-finished repairs because parts "seem hard to get."
A short walk away is another measure of the continuing challenges.
They call it the "dead line."
Long columns of broken-down Humvees, trucks and big haulers stretch across nearly eight acres. They have been collected from armories across the region and each awaits a mechanic's hand, delayed parts or both.
Funding to pay full-time technicians and mechanics such as Argenal have continued to decline, officials say, making it difficult to break a backlog of major repair jobs here and elsewhere.
"It's nothing for a unit to send in a truck with a blown engine and have to wait nine to 12 months to get the truck back," said Lt. Col. Jacob vanGoor, chief of staff of the state's largest division.
But several guardsmen agreed with a sergeant from an artillery company in the San Fernando Valley.