How do you mold a mishmash group of doctors and mechanics, lawyers and homemakers into a hop-to corps that's ready to respond to everything from Bosnia's conflicts to the sting of big floods or storms?
That's Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville's task, and she relishes it.
Her charges gather just two weeks per year and one weekend a month. But when General Rainville recently became the first woman state commander in the 360-year history of America's National Guard, she took responsibility for the combat readiness and response capability of the 4,400-member Vermont team.
Indeed, her challenge is a case-study in modern management: These people with full-time lives and only part-time commitment to the Guard must be inspired and motivated more than strong-armed or cajoled.
"You don't have to have tight, centralized control of what the troops do," Rainville says, describing her management style. "While you have to maintain military order and discipline, you have to respect people as people."
More than two decades after the Guard opened its doors to women, Rainville and others are rising to top ranks. They're starting to reshape the part-time citizen army that harks back to Massachusetts minutemen grabbing their rifles and racing off to defend a fledgling nation.
Theirs is a crucial job. The national corps of 488,242 is "federalized" and sent overseas in times of war or other military missions. Governors call on them to aid in disaster relief or other civil emergencies. And they regularly support their communities through literacy programs and other projects. Their role has become more crucial since the Vietnam War, because active forces can't deploy without guardsmen going too.
Back in February, Rainville defeated a veteran adjutant general in secret balloting by a joint session in Vermont's General Assembly. The heated campaign was seen by many as a competition between two management styles - old versus new.
On one hand was an energetic, Air Guard commander respected for her ability to delegate authority and listen to troops. On the other was a Vietnam War veteran successful in safeguarding Vermont's Guard from federal budget cuts but dogged by a reputation as an authoritarian micromanager.
Rainville had been commanding Burlington's 158th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron for nine years when she challenged Maj. Gen. Donald Edwards. Her motto: to modernize management and open headquarters to those who she believed had been shut out of late.
But she is no softie. Her Air Guard squadron was the top aircraft-maintenance team at an international fighter-aircraft contest, its members loading rockets, bombs, and machine guns into F-16s faster than any other unit.
"Martha offers an opportunity of respecting the tradition and also reaching beyond it to get the valuable insight and energy of people," says John Friedin, the lawmaker who nominated her.
Her approach is finding echoes across the country, particularly in Guard units from Florida to New York, where women are beginning to assume leadership roles.
One priority they're stressing is to take good care of members.
To that end, after the Gulf war Brig. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris of New York spearheaded the creation of a family support program for the families of guards.
Brig. Gen. Rosetta Burke, who recently retired from service in New York, made youth issues a top priority. The former prison warden drew national attention with a program that recruits mentors and volunteers for youth programs.
But not all are convinced of women's special role. "Does this shake up national defense that a ... woman has been appointed in this very important position? Not really," says John Hillen, a military analyst at Washington's Heritage Foundation. He argues that above all else military experience is critical now that the Guard is likely to be deployed in every conflict.
Rainville's quick rise is due in part to the fact she was elected, but Maj. Gen. Richard Alexander, president of the National Guard Association, says, "Outstanding performance has its rewards, regardless of gender."
WHAT IS THE NATIONAL GUARD?
* It's made up of 488,242 part-time soldiers who each work a total of 39 days a year. A captain with 15 years of service takes home about $5,800 per year.
* If the US goes to war, the Guard is automatically "federalized" and goes too. When US troops go overseas - to Bosnia, Somalia, or elsewhere - so does the Guard.
* Governors can call up the Guard to aid in emergencies - from the Midwest floods to the April 1 East Coast snowstorm to last fall's riots in St. Petersburg, Fla.
* The Guard's budget is $9.4 billion - 4 percent as much as the Pentagon's.
* The Guard provides about half of the US fighting force. It has eight army divisions, for instance. The Army has 10.
* Women make up 14 percent of the Air Guard and 9 percent of the Army Guard. They're about 15 percent of the US military.