In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they came out by the thousands. They were some of the first on the scene and among the last to leave.
Call them "the forgotten responders." They got little press, and most Americans still don't know they even exist.
They are the State Defense Forces.
In Texas alone, more than 1,000 SDF members mobilized to assist in the Katrina recovery. They organized medical and military police units that received evacuees at Kelly Air Force Base and supported operations at the Houston Astrodome and at shelters in four other locations within Texas.
In Georgia, SDF volunteers processed evacuees through Dobbins Air Reserve Base and provided medical and administrative support and security for shelters.
From Virginia 100 came to aid in the Katrina response. Maryland sent an 81-person medical team to Louisiana. Tennessee activated 150 volunteers to secure and support shelter operations.
How could this be?
The U.S. Constitution allows states to raise and maintain state defense forces. As the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, these groups can be an important supplement to the National Guard, particularly during catastrophic disasters.
When trained, disciplined, and well organized, local responders are essential for providing immediate aid and security.
The private, self-proclaimed "militias" profiled in a recent issue of Time Magazine are a completely different animal. SDFs are authorized and managed by the states. Though they seldom make the headlines, they represent a combined force of 14,000.
They are scattered around the country. And they are absolutely critical to America's ability to respond to nationwide disasters.
Last week, representatives from the 23 states that have organized SDFs assembled in Albuquerque, N.M., for the annual conference of the State Guard Association of the United States. Frankly, they are not that formidable-looking.
You see a hodge-podge of uniforms, many grey-haired generals, and more than a few members who would have a hard time making it over the obstacle course. Outward appearance notwithstanding, this crew possesses a wealth of professionalism, experience and dedication.
We're talking Vietnam War veterans, Ph.D.s in clinical psychology, and emergency managers with decades of experience.
Unlike the National Guard, the SDFs receive no funding or support from the federal government. Most serve for no pay whatsoever.
The Heritage Foundation recently surveyed 13 states with SDFs and found only four paid SDF members -- even when they were serving on state-active duty to respond to disasters. They are truly volunteer citizen soldiers.
The survey also found that SDFs perform a variety of functions for different states. Some help the state National Guard in maintaining armories; others help out in the state emergency operations centers.
Some SDF members assist local law enforcement; some have their own naval and air arms, while others provide medical and communications support.
Whatever their duties, each member fills an important niche in protecting and serving the citizens of his or her state.
SDFs are a low-cost, high-payoff asset, yet many states do not maintain them. Judging by more than 50 years of actuarial data, states such as Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have a historically "high risk" of natural disasters. Yet none of those seven states has an SDF.
Washington, D.C., doesn't either. Some territories, such as Puerto Rico, do. Go figure.
With state coffers pressed for cash and homeland security grants likely to shrink in the years ahead, all states should be pursuing low-cost, high-yield, common-sense measures to ensure they'll be ready when disaster strikes. Establishing or expanding SDFs is a great way to go.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner