DeSantis announces director of newly reactivated Florida State Guard

Florida’s governor announced the first director of a newly reactivated Florida State Guard on Wednesday to bolster the state’s National Guard with a focus on responding to disasters in the hurricane-prone region.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said the director of the re-upped force would be retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Chris Graham, an Iraq veteran and former intelligence and anti-terrorism officer.

"He started out as an enlisted Marine, worked his way up the ranks, served as an officer for 20 years, earned a Purple Heart along the way in 2005," DeSantis said. "He's been a helicopter pilot. He served three tours in Iraq. He's been a special projects officer and created the model for the anti-terrorism battalion companies, including their pre-deployment training, and their standard operating procedures for close-quarters battle and personal security detail operations. Those are very significant high levels of training."

Graham, who enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school in Miami, said he wants to "do my part."

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"I think this unit has a particularly important mission," Graham said at a news conference in Madeira Beach. "As Floridians, you guys know, the last hurricane’s behind us, the next hurricane’s on the horizon. Anything we can do to help, I want to help."

Graham said he would also like the new force to contribute the state's defense capabilities. According to DeSantis, more than 1,200 people have applied for the state guard’s 400 positions, which will be volunteer-based, there will be a stipend for training sessions.

The Florida National Guard, in comparison, has about 12,000 members.

About half of the U.S. states have active defense forces under the sole authority of the state governments, including big states such as California, Texas and New York. Florida’s state guard was created in 1941 to backfill National Guard members deployed in World War II, but was disbanded in 1947.

Seventy-five years later, DeSantis proposed to reactivate it, and the Legislature this year authorized $10 million for that.

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The head of the Florida National Guard, Adjutant Gen. Jim Eifert, said the National Guard has allocated to Florida nearly the lowest level of staffing per citizen among U.S. states and territories, leaving the state’s National Guard stretched "razor thin."

The "trained civilian volunteer work force" of the new state guard might help relieve the "wear and tear" on the National Guard following a busy couple of years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil strife and storms, Eifert said.

Critics, however, have described the move as authoritarian. 

Democrat Charlie Crist, who is running for governor, slammed it as DeSantis' "hand-picked secret police." 

However, the governor pointed out today that 23 other states have their own guard, including Democrat-controlled states like New York and California.

"Florida will join over 20 other states and territories that already have their own state guard, including states like New York," DeSantis said. 

The Associated Press and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.