At least one weekend a month, Butts County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Matt Garrison trades in his law enforcement uniform for one with a little more camouflage and becomes a Georgia State Defense Force private.
Garrison spoke to the Jackson-Butts County Rotary Club about the all-volunteer, modern version of the Georgia militia at the Rotary Club’s June 27 meeting. His 5th Brigade unit is based in Macon and affiliated with the National Guard Company B in Forsyth. The two groups train together and share the same uniform with the U.S. Army.
The Defense Force is under the command of the governor and Georgia adjutant general and is “embedded with the Georgia National Guard,” Garrison said. “Georgia has a department of defense” under which the Defense Force operates.
Members of the Georgia Defense Force can range in age from 18 to 64 and must be U.S. citizens with at least a high school education, Garrison said. Men and women sign up for two-year commitments and can be classified in one of three duty levels ranging from no restrictions to desk jobs in administration and communications.
“You don’t have to be in peak shape and if you got a DUI or did something as a kid, it won’t bar you,” Garrison said. “They do have height and weight requirements. There’s something for everyone to do.”
The Defense Force is commanded by Brig. Gen. Tom Danielson, who oversees some 550 members across five brigades who take part in disaster relief, search and rescue and other emergencies, Garrison said. “I can’t tell you how many (missing) children are found under the bed or in a closet. There’s a whole school for search and rescue,” he said.
Members are unarmed unless needed and are not eligible for overseas deployment. Their job is to help support the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and civil authorities. Most of the times they are called up, it is for assistance during bad weather such as the 2014 winter storm.
“It’s more than a bunch of yahoos throwing on uniforms and running around. There’s a lot of discipline. We assist the National Guard in training and readiness when ordered by the state adjutant general,” Garrison said.
When Turner County was hit by a tornado, the Georgia Defense Force was activated instead of the National Guard. During Hurricane Matthew, defense force members managed inland shelters in Macon.
“We can usually assemble within an hour,” Garrison said. “I’ve got gear ready to go.”
In addition to initial entry training, members also take online courses with GEMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When they are called out for a local emergency, Butts County Emergency Management Agency Director Glen Goens makes the call, Garrison said.
“When you join, they have a whole training program,” Garrison said. “Initial entry training is like basic training. They take the military structure very seriously.”
Georgia State Defense Force members may also receive weapons training from the Georgia National Guard when training alongside a National Guard unit that is conducting weapons training.
“We get the same badges for (skills such as) marksmanship, (and) all the awards the military can get. I get to shoot a lot of cool weapons,” he said.
The Georgia Defense Force also takes part in disaster preparation training, he said, working on things like mass evacuations and extractions. He discussed one drill at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah.
While he was not one of them, “some of us got to ride in a C-130,” Garrison said. “I was one of the guys handling the stretchers.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article contained imprecise information about National Guard weapons training. It has been updated.