DeSantis announces new head of Florida State Guard

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday appointed a new director of the Florida State Guard after the previous director died last year.

Capt. Luis Soler, a captain in the United States Navy Reserve, will take over leading the newly reactivated force that DeSantis said will provide additional support during state emergencies beyond the Florida National Guard.

Soler was previously the deputy director and chief of operations for the Florida State Guard, where he made $165,000, according to a state database. It was not immediately clear how much he’ll make in his new position.

In 2006, Soler was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has completed four other command tours, according to a biography from the governor’s office.

Soler replaces retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Chris Graham, a Purple Heart recipient who was named to lead the force in June, just shortly after he retired from the Marines. Graham, who grew up in Miami and was a founding member of the Marine Corps Antiterrorism Battalion, died in October. He left behind a wife and 10-year-old son, according to a GoFundMe page. He was 51.

The Florida State Guard is restricted for use during emergencies within Florida, unlike the state’s National Guard, which can be sent out to assignments across the country.

The WWII-era force was reactivated at the behest of DeSantis, who said the state’s National Guard was stretched thin. The Florida National Guard is ranked 53 out of 54 states and territories in the ratio of Guard personnel to total state population, according to a bipartisan letter authored by Florida’s congressional delegation last year urging federal authorities to assign more resources.

Twenty-two other states in the U.S. have state guard forces, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including California, Texas and New York.

Florida’s Legislature in 2022 allocated $10 million for a force of 400 volunteers, double the number of volunteers DeSantis had initially sought.

The guard has not yet been deployed anywhere in Florida, as they are still “gearing up and training,” according to Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. The state has received about 3,400 applications to join the guard, he said.

Members of the State Guard did act as observers during Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. Including the State Guard director, there are four employees: a personnel officer, a training officer and logistics and research officer, Griffin said. They make salaries ranging from $70,000 to $165,000.

The guard will be split into three regions, each with their leadership teams, Griffin said. The state is still interviewing and filling those positions.

According to the state statute, members of the guard are volunteers but can be reimbursed for travel expenses related to training or in the course of service.

The Florida State Guard director reports to the Florida Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. John Haas.

DeSantis’ proposal to revive the State Guard was criticized by Democrats, who feared it was an expansion of power and authority for the governor, who is the only person that can activate the force.

DeSantis has embraced that criticism.

“If you turned on NBC, it was, ‘DeSantis is raising an army and he’s going to raze the planet,’” he told reporters in January last year. “But you know, the response from people was, ‘Oh hell, he’s raising an army? I want to join! Let’s do it. Florida, yay!’ We ended up having a huge amount of people that wanted to join.”

Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.