HELENA – Brig. Gen. Joel D. Cusker, director of the joint staff of the Montana National Guard, and who had served as acting adjutant general for five weeks last spring, told Montana Watchdog he has been dismissed from his post.
He said on April 19 he was issued a notice of “involuntary separation” from Brig. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the adjutant general for the state, who said he had deliberated for some time.
“It was a straight-up forward conversation,” Cusker, 53, said, describing the general’s decision as candid. “He said ‘Joel, I have been thinking long and hard and I don’t want you on my team.’”
A Department of Military Affairs spokesman confirmed Cusker’s account of what happened. He said no replacement had been named.
In his present role, Cusker was responsible for preparing more than 2,900 citizen soldiers and more than 1,000 citizen airmen capable of supporting state and federal missions. He also coordinated an annual budget of $204 million.
Cusker (pictured at right), who said he would be placed into the Reserves, said his last day would be May 26.
“I am still processing what I will do,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that he has wanted to be a soldier since he was 5.
“As soldier we don’t always like the orders we are provided, but as a soldier it’s our duty to follow when given a lawful order,” he said, adding it was the end of a 34-year career.
“I’ve tried to engage and gain some clarity on this,” he said. “The Montana National Guard is so much bigger than one person … We cannot afford any second-guessing in a command climate,” he said. “It’s important to accept decisions offered to us and drive off as soldiers. We can’t afford that kind of distraction.
“I will wake up May 27 and I will no longer be a soldier,” he said. “The emotions are still raw, but I will work through it.”
In March, Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Cusker as acting adjutant general for the Department of Military Affairs in the wake of Brig. Gen. John Walsh resigning to be a running mate for Steve Bullock’s gubernatorial campaign.
“You have my best wishes and gratitude for your willingness to serve the State of Montana,” Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Cusker. “I look forward to working with you in your role with the Montana Department of Military Affairs.”
Cusker said he was never led to believe his assignment as acting adjutant general would become permanent.
“I do believe the governor wanted me to hold the terrain,” he said.
He said during his five weeks in that position, he rehired a person who had been laid off from the Department of Emergency Services because of a reorganization in force. She then filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit. He said he met with the governor’s counsel and they expressed concerns and strongly suggested she not be hired because of the lawsuit. He said he told them the person was a good performer and was not laid off because of performance issues.
“I made it quite simple,” Cusker said. “I am an officer and I have an oath to the Constitution and it is an individual’s right to file litigation, and we cannot not hire her because of the lawsuit.”
Cusker said he’s had an exciting career with the military.
“I’ve had all the key assignments,” Cusker said. “I never aspired to be a general officer. I enjoyed being a platoon leader. I’ve enjoyed every single assignment. It’s been an incredible ride, it truly has.”
According to his biography online, Cusker enlisted in the Montana Army National Guard in 1978 and served in the 163rd Armored Cavalry Regiment as a cavalry scout.
He was nationally recognized with the U.S. Army MacArthur Leadership Award. Cusker served as a cavalry platoon leader, commanded two armor companies, served as the 5th Corps Battle captain (Germany), commanded the 208th Regiment and served as the project officer to establish the State Partnership Program with Kyrgyzstan.
According to his biography, he volunteered for a combat deployment to Afghanistan where he served as the Officer in Charge of the Central Corps Assistance Group. In this capacity he was instrumental in recruiting, training, equipping, basing and then deploying over 8,000 Soldiers to serve as the first element of the Afghanistan National Army.
Cusker received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana, a master’s degree in Military Studies from American Military University, and a National Security Fellowship from Harvard University.
Cusker said he and his wife plan to move to the family farm outside of Missoula this summer.
“There is 2 1/2 miles of fence to fix and my dad said I am a beautiful fence fixer,” he said.