Remember this number as the active-duty military battles with the National Guard over which side will bear the brunt of coming defense cuts:


Three hours, 51 minutes is the time my reinforced cavalry squadron took to respond to the massive San Diego fire disaster of 2007.

Just three hours, 51 minutes from the moment I stood in a suit outside of a restaurant, with my cell phone pressed to my ear as the California National Guard Joint Operations Center ordered me to activate my nearly 1,300 soldiers, a unit of Army National Guard troops was on the road from the Los Angeles basin moving south to assist the beleaguered people of San Diego County.

I wish I could say this lightning quick response was the result of my inspired leadership, but it wasn't. It was the citizen warriors of the National Guard, experienced in war and experts at civilian support, who literally smelled smoke and made their way to their local armories knowing they would again be called protect their fellow citizens.

The active Army’s highest-readiness alert units could not dream of deploying in 12 hours. But that’s not a hit on them, because that’s not their job.

For the National Guard, stationed in our communities, made up of local citizens, fires, floods, tornadoes, blizzards and riots are business as usual.

Yet today, to avoid the hard business of reforming the active military's force structure, the Pentagon is seeking dramatic cuts to the very kinds of soldiers and airmen the Army and Air National Guard needs most when disaster strikes at home.

These combat forces — like infantry, engineers and security police — are the very ones our citizens count on because they have the personnel and the vehicles disaster response requires.

But those are also the high-visibility, high-prestige units that the active forces propose to keep for itself, cutting overall National Guard numbers while stacking it with the kind of support units that are little use to state governors in an emergency.

Governors are fighting back, but it is Congress that must make the final call — and it will be held accountable by our citizens.

Make no mistake: Our active-duty warriors are magnificent. I know. Like many National Guard warriors, I spent years on active duty and returned to active duty for an overseas deployment post-9/11.

But active forces are very different from the National Guard. These soldiers and airmen, all trained in active-duty schools, live in our communities, not off on remote bases.

And while active warriors are experts in what is usually their first full-time job, National Guard warriors are experienced fighters, as well as leaders in the civilian world — police officers, teachers, technicians, doctors and lawyers.

Young warriors often join the Army or Air Guard after leaving active-duty. This preserves their expensive military training and their priceless combat experience even as they add invaluable civilian skills and education to the mix.

To simply abandon those critical skills after one active duty tour is shortsighted, but the active forces’ plan would do just that.

For example, the active Army wants to take the Guard's Apache helicopters for itself. It spends millions of dollars training each pilot, who often serve one hitch and then leave active duty. Without National Guard units flying Apaches, those critical skills will vanish.

You can’t just “shake and bake” an Apache pilot in an emergency. The Army will have to spend millions more to train new aviators to replace those who should never have been lost in the first place.

Part-time National Guard warriors cost a fraction of what an active warrior does. And they are eager to serve — considering the disruptions to their professional and family lives, no reservist does it just for the money.

Pop my trunk. You’ll find a duffel full of uniforms, boots and gear. Every National Guard warrior has a ready bag for when the call comes again.

And when it does come, at three hours, 52 minutes, the American people are going to ask their civilian leaders where their National Guard warriors are.

Kurt Schlichter, an Army veteran of Desert Storm and Kosovo, is a colonel in the National Guard. The views expressed here are solely his own.