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The National Guard has long been America’s “break glass in case of emergency” force — and the glass has been thoroughly shattered.

Over the last two decades, the Guard’s role has only grown. When it became clear that the Iraq War was dragging on longer than expected, the National Guard was deployed en masse to allow the active-duty Army to reorganize: At one point in 2005, guardsmen made up more than half of the combat forces in Iraq. At home, guardsmen have been called on countless times in response to devastating natural disasters that accompany climate change, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

But the past year has been even more taxing on the force. The number of guardsmen activated in 2020 reached historic levels and remains very high compared with five years ago.

“What we’re seeing now; I believe, is that we’re getting a lot more use across a wider part of the Guard simultaneously,” said retired Army Col. Michael Linick, a defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Since last spring, guardsmen have been mobilized to support police during protests following the death of George Floyd; to secure Washington, D.C., following the Jan. 6 insurrection; to help distribute vaccines for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19); to assist with the construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border; and in response to natural disasters.

With so many emergencies happening at the same time, the National Guard’s role as the universal solution to every single problem facing the country is being tested. But even if the force is being tasked with too many missions, the hard truth is that it’s the only option the nation has right now.

And it’s taking a toll on men and women who make up the National Guard.

The non-stop string of crises since last spring has interrupted the lives of many National Guardsmen several times, often with no indication of how long they would be away from their families and jobs.

“It is a wider, broader, deeper usage of the Guard over a longer period of time than what we’ve typically seen in the past,” Linick said. “That does put strain on the members of the units in the sense of more time away from home or more time away from their jobs and their employers — more disruptions to their lives.”

Amid last summer’s protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 120,000 guardsmen were mobilized in June 2020 — the most National Guard personnel activated at a single time in the Guard’s history — and as of March 12, about 72,800 members of the National Guard were taking part in missions at home and overseas, said Wayne Hall, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau.

This time five years ago, far fewer personnel had been mobilized: roughly 15,510.

And the length of deployments for National Guardsmen varies widely, depending on mission requirements, Hall said.

“For example, storm response efforts may only require activations for a number of days to weeks, while overseas deployments in Title 10 status may require activations for several months,” Hall said, referring to when Guardsmen are mobilized for federal active-duty service.

Being mobilized hundreds of miles from home for months on end poses difficulties for guardsmen who are trying to advance in their civilian jobs, especially when their assignments get extended at the last minute, said a Florida National Guardsman, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

The past year has been all the more difficult because children have been trying to attend school virtually, and having one parent away from home has placed added strain on family life, he said.

“It’s quite a bit,” the guardsman said. “And then throw regular overseas deployments in on top of that and you find yourself in a situation where it almost becomes untenable to be a participant with the Guard.” 

In the past, states have mobilized guardsmen for relatively short periods of time in response to riots or natural disasters.  

Whereas mobilizations for hurricanes in Florida typically last between 10 and 20 days, the recent activations have been going on for months, the guardsman said.

“The only longer call up I remember was when we provided airport security after 9/11,” he said, “That went six months for us in Florida.” 

One benefit of these longer mobilizations is that the National Guardsmen activated for COVID-19 are receiving housing and education benefits that they do not get when they are called up by the state, the guardsman said. 

That’s why some National Guardsmen who are unemployed or in low-paying jobs have volunteered to stay longer, he said.

“What we’re seeing now; I believe, is that we’re getting a lot more use across a wider part of the Guard simultaneously,” said Linick, the defense researcher with RAND.

The National Guard provides an enormous pool of labor that can respond to crises much faster than other government entities, he added.

“We wouldn’t typically think of soldiers as the right people to be doing COVID relief, and yet they are,” Linick said. “They are because they can — and nobody else could at that speed and scale. And so that’s kind of new. I think it would be hard to find earlier examples of that.”

As for the mission currently underway in Washington, D.C., it seems that no one can say when the National Guard will finally get a break that allows service members and their families to recuperate from the crushing operational tempo.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the House Armed Services Committee’s chairman and ranking Republican issued a statement recently saying the security situation in the nation’s capital does not warrant having so many guardsmen stay there until late May.

“We cannot ignore the financial costs associated with this prolonged deployment, nor can we turn a blind eye to the effects it will soon have on the National Guard’s overall readiness,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) wrote on March 11. “We appreciate our guardsmen answering the call to protect the Capitol, but it’s time for us to review what level of security is required, so they can return home to their families and communities.”

But that’s just one deployment among many for a service that has duties in their home states, and can, and has, been mobilized for national emergencies and overseas deployments.

National Guardsmen spent a total of 10.3 million days deployed in 2020, and that is four-times as many days as guardsmen were activated in 2019, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters on March 5.

Despite the breakneck op-tempo of the past year, recruitment and retention for the National Guard is “beyond where it has been in any time in our recent history, Hokanson said during a media roundtable. 

Left unsaid is that the National Guard offers a paycheck when the economy is bad, such as it is now. Guardsmen can also receive benefits to help pay for college, which is especially important amid sky-rocketing tuition costs.

“Of course, we have some folks that do need to get back to their civilian careers,” Hokanson said. “And on our chain of command, we think it’s doing a really good job of balancing those that need to go back to work or have family things that they need to accomplish and making sure that we get the right number of folks where they’re needed most of all.”

But a Maryland National Guardsman speaking on condition of anonymity said his leadership has not demonstrated any concern for people who need to return to their jobs or families.

“No one cares about the E4 going to college,” said the guardsman, who was not authorized to speak publicly about National Guard issues. “No one cares about the E5 starting a family and going to grad school. No one cares about the guy who is a cop and survives off of his overtime.”

The guardsman said he has been activated for COVID-19, protests in Baltimore, and President Joe Biden’s inauguration in the past year. At one point, he and other guardsmen were forced to set up camp in a parking garage.

The toughest part about these mobilizations is he didn’t know when they’d end, he said.

“That’s not to say these people don’t want to help,” the guardsman said. “If asked, all of these people would go to war tomorrow. But to be called up to stand around a parking lot is asinine.”

Featured image: A military police officer stands watch near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.)

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