The Old Guard

Suited from head to toe in woodlands camouflage, Lynna Kay Shuffield paces back and forth in front of the chalkboard, lecturing on the art of war as taught by Napoleon, Frederick the Great and Sun Tzu. As the first woman, and indeed, one of the few members of the Texas State Guard to complete the demanding "Command and General Staff Course," her goal is to help others do the same. She is businesslike. She is efficient. She is prepared. And in the State Guard, she is completely out of place.

Shuffield's pupils -- all two of them -- will probably never face a real-life situation requiring Napoleonic strategy. Officially, the State Guard, Texas's little-known but state-supported militia, is an all-volunteer, unarmed force that exists to protect the armories of the Texas National Guard, should the National Guard be called out for federal duty. That's never happened.

So, unofficially, the State Guard acts as a kind of scout troop for adults, an excuse for retired military men and others to play soldier. The Guard justifies its existence by doing good deeds: searching for missing children, helping out in natural disasters, even digging wells for poor communities on the Texas/Mexico border. Sometimes, though, the organization can't even give away its services: This year, Galveston chose not to allow the Guard to control crowds and direct traffic at its Mardi Gras celebration, as it has for the past several years; instead, the city decided it would rather pay for professional security. Every month, Guard members meet simply to drill -- though it's hard to see those meetings as exercises in preparedness. On this Saturday, the most pressing military assignment facing Shuffield's unit, the 8th Brigade, is to figure out where the heck its flag has gotten to.

Still, many members of the Guard -- and most especially Lynna Shuffield -- take the organization very seriously. Shuffield's family has a long history of military service, and she intended to carry on the tradition. In 1975, she was among the first women admitted to the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps college program, and after she graduated from the University of Houston, she hoped to enlist in the Navy. But she says that doctors discovered a minor heart condition that kept her from joining any branch of the U.S. military or the National Guard. The State Guard, and only the State Guard, offered her a chance to serve in uniform -- and even if it's a uniform that she has to pay for herself, Shuffield prizes the opportunity. She dearly wants the Guard to be all that it can be.

She labors to make the Guard a first-rate military unit, but for all her efforts -- and to some degree because of those efforts -- she's not popular with her fellow officers. Even her allies say that she didn't luck out in the personality department, that her "people skills" are spotty at best. She is, by her own assessment, "ugly with a capital Ugh." She's fat. Her face is pocked. Her hair hangs in a long, greasy tail down her back. Her eyeglasses are smudgy. She talks in a slurry lisp, and to explain why, she leans forward, opens her mouth wide and lifts her tongue to reveal, underneath, a congenitally misshapen jaw with two little outcroppings of bone. "See, I'm a throwback!" she says with determined gaiety. "Prehistoric."

Shuffield thought those flaws wouldn't matter in the State Guard. The military, after all, is not a beauty pageant or a personality contest. And in a rigid environment with clear rules and regulations, she thought she could finally expect to be judged not on her quirks and flaws, but on her ability to get a job done right.

But faced with Shuffield and her professionalism, the organization she so wanted to serve simply closed ranks. Instead of the spit-and-polish structure she expected, she found a good old boys' social club in which rules are sometimes not worth the paper they're written on.

Shuffield is not alone in her discontent with the organization: Many current and former guardsmen complain of rampant discrimination, selective enforcement, illegal promotions, incompetence and retaliation. But of all the Guard's would-be reformers, Shuffield has been the loudest, most persistent and most consistently ignored. She has been discharged from duty, badmouthed, humiliated and, she says, threatened with bodily harm. Another person might have shrugged and stopped volunteering. But the more Shuffield suffered, the harder grew her resolve to make the Guard play by the rules.

On this cold, gray Saturday, she teaches her two-person class the philosophy of warrior Sun Tzu: that the supreme battle tactic is to subdue the enemy without a struggle. It's a piece of advice Shuffield hasn't been able to apply to her own all-out war with the Guard. Her enemy refuses to be subdued, and rather than deciding the Guard isn't worth a fight, she is struggling for all she's worth.

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Shaila Dewan