Gen. Frank Grass became the 27th chief of the National Guard Bureau in a Pentagon ceremony, Sept. 7, 2012.
"I'm very excited about the future; there's hard work to do," Grass said. "To the men and women of the National Guard: You're the most professional, most well-trained and experienced National Guard our nation has ever had. I pledge that I will work every day to serve and support you so that we can continue to be a ready, accessible and essential operational force for our states as well as our nation."
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta hosted the change-of-responsibility ceremony in the Pentagon Auditorium.
"I know our citizen-warriors will be in good hands," Panetta said. "Today, we entrust General Grass with a national treasure -- a force that has been transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of the operational military and whose ranks are now filled with skilled combat veterans."
Grass relieved Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley as the chief of the National Guard Bureau. Grass also received his fourth star during the ceremony.
"I am confident that General Grass will be a strong advocate for the National Guard's most valuable asset -- its Soldiers, its Airmen and their families," Panetta said. "The reason we are the greatest military power on earth lies not in our weapons, lies not in our planes or our ships or our advanced technology, as great as they all are: The strength of our military lies in our people."
As chief of the National Guard Bureau, Grass serves as a military adviser to the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council and is the Department of Defense's official channel of communication to the governors and adjutants general in all 54 states and territories on all matters pertaining to the National Guard.
He is the second chief to also serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McKinley was the first, and also the first four-star officer in the National Guard's more than 375-year history.
"The chiefs and I welcome General Frank Grass and his wife Patricia to the team," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is the right man for the job: A thinker, a learner and one of the most experienced leaders in our military today. He knows what it means to put service before self and to put people first. And he knows what it will take to overcome the challenges of tomorrow -- and those challenges are not going to be easy."
"It's because of leaders like you and the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard that we remain the world's preeminent military force," he said.
Grass is responsible for ensuring that more than half a million Army and Air National Guard personnel are accessible, capable and ready to protect the homeland and to provide combat resources to the Army and the Air Force.
The National Guard rose to the challenges of the past decade, Panetta said.
"The Guard responded," he said. "Be it patrolling our nation's skies. Be it fighting and dying on the war fronts. Be it responding swiftly and compassionately to floods and fires, disasters of one kind or another, meeting the needs of their fellow countrymen in distress here at home and abroad -- and that is what the National Guard is all about."
"Last year in Libya, the Air National Guard was there providing the bulk of the tankers that were so essential to that effort. And today more than 28,000 National Guardsmen remain deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan, in Kosovo and elsewhere overseas.
"When I travel to the war zones, when I travel abroad, I cannot tell the difference between Guardsmen and the active-duty force, and that's the way it should be, because we are all part of one team."
"The men and women of the Guard have shown again and again that they are always ready and always there. Throughout our history, America has depended on the citizen-Soldier. Those citizen-Soldiers who've been willing to leave their farms, to leave their homes, to leave their businesses, to leave their jobs, to leave their families in order to fight to protect this country.
"In deploying the Guard, we have made certain -- this is very important -- we have made certain that every community, every citizen shares in the responsibility of defending America. If we are to fight wars -- as we must when we are called to do that -- all of us, all of us need to be part of that effort if we are to succeed."
The United States is beginning to emerge from a decade of war that has seen more than 460,000 Guard personnel deploy to Afghanistan, Iraq and other overseas operations, Panetta said.
"Our National Guard today is far more capable, far more experienced and battle-hardened than at any point in our nation's history," he said. "The Guard remains not just an important part of our fighting force, but they are our first responders when disasters strike here at home."
More than 7,000 Guard members were assisting civil authorities Friday in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, he noted.
"The Guard has always been there for the nation," Dempsey said, noting the Air National Guard's role routinely protecting the nation's air sovereignty from Soviet intrusions during the Cold War -- missions that McKinley participated in.
"Today, the Guard is still on the front lines, both at home and abroad," Dempsey said.
The Minuteman, ready to set down the plow and pick up the musket at a moment's notice, is the Guard's symbol. "Guardsmen and women breathe life into that emblem every day," Dempsey said, adding a tribute to McKinley: "Craig's been their greatest advocate."
Dempsey also thanked McKinley's wife.
"Cheryl, thank you for making a difference you can see and feel in the lives of the men and women of the National Guard," he said.
The change-of-responsibility ceremony welcomed Grass -- and honored McKinley for his service as the 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
"His nearly four decades of service to this country have marked an incredible dedication to what America's all about," Panetta said. "His hard work and dedication to the people of this country and his commitment to the people of the Guard exemplifies the very best in America's citizen-warriors."
"We honor General McKinley for his remarkable service to the National Guard Bureau, to the Department of Homeland Security and to our nation," Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "His leadership has been instrumental in helping build the strong relationships that we have today among our many federal, state, local, tribal, territorial and foreign partners."
Napolitano cited improved disaster-response capabilities and strengthened border security.
"General McKinley and the National Guard have been essential partners," she said.
"To improve our coordination and better prepare for and respond to disasters, he embraced a whole-of-government approach," she said. "The partnership between DHS and the Guard has never been stronger."
McKinley received both the Defense Department Distinguished Service Medal and the Department of Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal on Friday.
"What do you say after a 39-year career?" McKinley said. "How do you thank the people who built up an enterprise and allowed you to be a part of it as I have?"
"The simplest words in the English language are 'thanks.' Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you from the bottom of Cheryl's heart. Our family has been deeply honored and privileged to serve."
The audience included former chiefs of the National Guard Bureau: retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Conaway, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Russell Davis and retired Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum.
"I stand on their shoulders," McKinley said.
"You have set a high standard for me to follow," Grass told the general he relieved.
Numerous cabinet secretaries, service chiefs, adjutants general, the directors of the Army and the Air National Guard, senior enlisted leaders and foreign representatives -- including many from the 65 nations of the National Guard's State Partnership Program -- attended Friday's standing-room only ceremony.
About 40 members of Grass' family were present, including his wife Patricia. The couple have five children and seven grandchildren.
At the end of the ceremony, before heading across the Pentagon Courtyard to his new office, the second four-star general in National Guard history and its new 27th chief quoted a fellow Guard member -- President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt:
"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."
-- The Defense Department contributed to this article.