After a Year of Domestic Crises, National Guard Chiefs Say the Force Needs to Grow

Soldiers from the Utah National Guard exit a KC-135R.
Soldiers from the Utah National Guard exit a KC-135R at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 27, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard/Master Sgt. John Winn)

With state National Guard contingents manning COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts; supporting overseas operations; deploying to Washington, D.C., to provide security; and on standby for national disasters, units are stretched to their limits, the adjutants general of three states said Friday.

Since Jan. 6, nearly 26,000 National Guard members have deployed or redeployed to the nation's capital, while 22,900 are supporting COVID-19 operations at 260 sites nationwide, including food distribution sites, testing centers and vaccination hubs.

The activations are in addition to the mission to support combat and contingency operations overseas, as well as meeting training requirements to remain mission-ready, leaders of the California, Washington and Michigan National Guards said during a call with reporters.

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"It hasn't been just a long year, it's been a long 20 years," said Army Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty. "I just want to focus on that. We're all consumed with our domestic operations right now, but it is simultaneous with our overseas deployments, which have not led up one iota."

He added that allotting the National Guard Bureau more troops would help accomplish all missions.

"We're an amazingly resilient force ... but I hope that as we have a tendency to reevaluate how our Department of Defense is structured in the future, perhaps we can find a little bit more force structure for our National Guard," Daugherty said.

While more than half of the Guard force deployed to DC has left, 12,000 remain to provide security through at least the end of February.

Michigan media outlets reported Friday that 1,000 members would travel to D.C. for a "new security mission," part of a larger force of 7,000 called up after the Department of Homeland Security issued a national bulletin Wednesday warning of a domestic terrorism threat.

In addition to troops in the nation's capital, the Michigan National Guard has 568 personnel on 117 teams supporting COVID-19 response in the state, conducting vaccination clinics and administering vaccines to prison inmates.

To date, the Michigan National Guard has vaccinated 44,000 state residents.

In California, 1,484 Guard members have been activated to man COVID testing sites and support food banks. Medical strike teams are working in emergency rooms across the state, and Guardsmen are supporting administrative tasks in two county coroner's offices, according to Army Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, the California adjutant general.

Baldwin added that another 1,000 California Guard members will be called up in the coming weeks for vaccination efforts.

All this, after a devastating wildfire season that had National Guard troops battling blazes.

"We're largely victims of our own success ... because the National Guard has become so professionalized, so capable. People are relying on us for more and more mission sets. To that end, the Guard is not big enough, and we need to grow," Baldwin said.

On Thursday, Defense Department officials said they are responding to a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help with the national COVID-19 immunization effort. According to DoD spokesman John Kirby, the department plans to meet the request and is working to figure out what mix of manpower it can provide -- National Guard, Reserve or active duty.

FEMA has requested up to 10,000 service members.

Officials said state Guard planners must be mindful of their service members' time, as well as the needs of their communities and employers, since National Guard members often work in civilian jobs comparable to their military duties.

"Every National Guard medical -- airman or soldier -- that I put into a vaccination site I am taking out of their civilian community to do, perhaps, the same thing in a different uniform. So I have to be very careful about that," said Maj. Gen. Jerry Fenwick, director of the National Guard Bureau Office of the Joint Surgeon.

Daugherty said National Guard troops are an "amazingly resilient force," but the units must be bigger.

Baldwin agreed.

He added that the bureau also must review benefit parity for those called up on state versus federal orders, as well as the decisions that go into the types of orders service members receive.

"[This is] because it has an impact on our ability to retain the top-quality people that we have serving in today's National Guard," Baldwin said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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