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"We would bring up complaints to the general all the time," Lagesse says, "and more than one time he said, 'Why do they do that? Why do [the Guard officers] treat their people so bad?' He's the boss, he could change that, but he doesn't. I've heard him say some very derogatory things about some officers. Yet he keeps these same people on."
While Owens says the Arizona Guard has a "reputation for excellence," Lagesse says the state Guard is better known for its personnel problems than its battle-readiness. Lagesse believes that limiting the term of the adjutant general is essential. "These guys who are attacking General Owens, they may have good cause," he says. "But I think they'd get farther if they concentrated on trying to get the term limited, so that the top command turns over."
Senator Bob Denny, who proposed the term-limiting legislation, agrees.
"Don Owens is a friend of mine," Denny says, "and this is nothing against him personally, but I don't believe this position should be a roosting place for someone. It ought to be an 'up-and-out' position, where you acknowledge someone's service, where you honor them, but if you stay there too long there's a potential to create an old-boy system. And it holds up promotions for a whole group of people."
"Most of the people who spoke against him at the hearing were retired," Curtis Jennings points out. "That's understandable since one of their complaints about Owens is that he's vindictive."
Jennings likens Owens' situation to that of recently deposed Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates. "People like them tend to impose their personality on an organization," Jennings says. "After they've been in charge five or ten years, there's going to be very few people left to oppose them."
Owens says there are advantages and disadvantages to the "up-and-out" system, but maintains that he was the best man to command the Guard during his tenure. He says there are qualified officers who will be ready to step in to replace him when he retires, and that continuity of leadership is important to any large organization. Denny, however, points out that many high-ranking military positions are limited to two-year terms, which prohibits the calcification of the chain of command and the development of a cult of personality. When one person occupies the top spot for too long, he says, there is a danger of certain orthodoxies setting in.
"It's just common sense," Denny says. "You tend to promote people who believe as you believe. It's not insidious, but it tends to stifle new ideas." Under state and federal statutes, almost any person who has reached the rank of colonel and been active for at least five years in the Arizona National Guard would be eligible for the adjutant general post, but practical considerations tend to thin the pool of candidates considerably.
For instance, unlike Owens, most National Guard officers are only part-time employees of the Guard. Since state law requires that the adjutant general "devote full time to the office," most officers would have to give up their often better-paying civilian jobs to assume the post.
As for the charge that only "right-minded" officers reach positions of responsibility within the Guard, Owens says his staff meetings often are the scene of fierce debates among officers. "I wish my so-called 'yes men' would stop arguing with me," he says.
While some critics feel "the system" is more to blame for the Guard's problems than the adjutant general, John Butler, the disgruntled former sergeant, dissents.
"The system is a good system," he says. "The problem is they don't follow their own rules. It's management by ignorance and incompetence, ergo, management by crisis. They run here and there and put out little fires, but if they'd follow their own rules, 90 percent of their problems would be solved."
If everybody followed the rules, Butler argues, there'd be no need to limit the adjutant general's term.
"It's all written down, you just follow the procedures," he says. "The trouble is, they don't know what their own rules are. I know more about them than they do. I go to them and show them regulations and they say, 'Oh, we didn't know that. Sorry.'" @rule:
@body:Lieutenant Eileen Bienz admires her boss and loves her work. As she wheels through the large compound that houses the Guard headquarters, it also becomes clear that she loves the National Guard. Every few feet she points out--with genuine enthusiasm--something interesting that bespeaks the general quality of the Arizona National Guard. There, she notes, is a collapsible air traffic control tower, and here are some captured Iraqi trucks and tanks, trophies from a lightning war.
She is helpful, a good hostess. Even those who gather to say bad things about the general find Bienz charming. When she runs out of gas and has to walk a few hundred yards back to headquarters, she makes it easy to see why someone might want to spend their weekends playing soldier, flying KC-135s on refueling missions, skimming over the desert in a brand-new Apache helicopter.