By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Where there is that much smoke, there must be a little fire," observed Senator Bob Denny, a former Air Force colonel who retired to Litchfield Park. "General Owens, when this is over, I hope you will take a good look at some of these criticisms."
Denny and Senator Alan Stephens said they would introduce legislation to limit any future Guard commander to a single four-year term. Stephens said the proposed legislation should not be construed as a slap at General Owens or at anyone else, but as a policy change to be debated in the legislature. That legislation was drafted and passed two senate committees but was never brought forward for a vote. Denny says he is disappointed that Democrats Stephens and Senate President Rios didn't push harder for the bill, but Stephens admits the bill was a low priority, possibly just a knee-jerk reaction to the traumatic hearings.
"It was a reaction," Stephens says, explaining why the bill was allowed to die. "This was the first time there were Senate hearings, and General Owens had his supporters and detractors. . . . It was an emotional thing."
A few weeks later, the Senate confirmed Owens' appointment by a vote of 28 to 2. The general had won his battle to remain the top official in the Arizona National Guard. But the war had just begun.
@body:Some small part of Don Owens' remarkable durability must be attributed to his appearance. He looks like a commanding officer or an actor playing an Air Force general in one of those Cold War jet operas like Fail-Safe or Strategic Air Command.
In his office, festooned with plaques and framed documents, he makes few wasted movements. His smile, however, is broad and tight, like a politician's practiced grin; the skin on his cheekbones draws back in folds as if fixed by a taxidermist.
He speaks--in an anchorman's voice drained of mannerism--as if prompted by cue cards. He is breezy, confident and likable.
Lieutenant Eileen Bienz, a public relations specialist, remains in the room, but she makes no obvious signals to the general. Indeed, gentle instructions flow the other way, and as the general nods or looks over the top of his glasses, she is quick to supply a name or number. Occasionally, she will jot a note to herself about something she feels vital to the outsider's understanding of the National Guard.
It turns out to be a pleasant morning for the general, as he talks about his career, the present and future of the Arizona National Guard. Sure, the confirmation hearings were tough, but he has survived. Military men are liable to make enemies. With more than 8,000 citizen soldiers in the Arizona National Guard, there are bound to be malcontents, troublemakers and people who, for whatever reason, honestly believe they were slighted by the system. And just as surely, there are abuses of power and ugly incidents. But most of the men and women in the Guard are good people, he says, who do what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it and give no thought to the color or sex of their fellow soldiers.
"We have regulations that ensure a hassle-free workplace," he says. "I'm sure that we haven't always been perfect, but hopefully we can address these concerns. . . ."
Owens says there is a tremendous reservoir of selfless talent in the Guard: Ph.D.s, attorneys, doctors, professional people, all willing to spend one weekend a month, as well as two weeks in the summer, drilling and training. Sure, they are paid, but he doesn't believe that is their prime motivation.
"This is like their golf," he says. "They don't golf, they do this: They come here and train. They don't have hobbies; this is the way they spend their leisure time."
This is serious work. Owens emphasizes the excellent performance of the Arizona Guard during Operation Desert Storm--and even the general's critics acknowledge local Guard units acquitted themselves well overseas, although they say Owens' role in the Gulf War was minimal. His role, detractors point out, consists largely of lobbying and public relations.
If so, then Owens seems well-qualified. He is a good spokesman and, unlike some military leaders, very comfortable around politicians. During his nine years as adjutant general, he has developed a knack for cultivating political friends. There is even some speculation that the third act of the general's life--after his retirement from the Guard--may find him running for elective office.
Under Owens the Guard has become a community resource. He says while its military mission must remain the Guard's prime focus, it is a flexible organization. Owens' Guard has helped with traffic control during the Pope's visit to Phoenix--an activity some of his critics have called inappropriate. He also points out that the Guard is active in everything from abetting drug interdiction to helping out with helicopter searches for lost hikers. Boy Scouts regularly swarm the McDowell Road headquarters, and in August the Guard buses 60 inner-city kids to the Navajo Army Depot, 14 miles west of Flagstaff, for a "Freedom Academy."
"Kids love challenges," Owens says. "They're competing every minute. We try to get them to make the right choices, because sometimes kids make choices that are lifelong and they don't even know it. Like if they choose to drop out of high school."
Without a high school diploma, Owens points out, they can't join the Guard. But they can use the Guard to further their postsecondary education, and unlike other military commitments, Guard duty won't prevent them from entering college right away.