National Guard’s Role Fighting the Coronavirus

Updated: June 3, 2020
In this Article

    Updated: June 1, 2020

    The National Guard continues its support of coronavirus outbreak containment efforts in the United States. The Guard has more than 45 thousand soldiers and airmen mobilized for pandemic response on U.S. soil; approximately 1200 Guard troops have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with an eight percent increase in cases in the final week of May, 2020.

    An Important Milestone

    On May 26, 2020, the Department of Defense issued a memo with an important announcement; the Defense Secretary authorized the switch to a “conditions-based phased approach to personnel movement and travel restrictions”.

    That is a significant step forward for the DoD as a whole and in the minds of some signalled baby steps toward returning to normal. The memo doesn’t affect Guard troops doing their domestic service in hardest-hit areas such as New York City and elsewhere, but it does indicate that the mission of these troops could be changing as conditions improve in some areas.

    At press time, Guard forces were still performing the same kinds of missions; supplementing local medical teams, helping with COVID-19 testing, creating and distributing masks and other PPE, providing support for local food banks, shelters, supporting local election efforts during lockdown, a wide range of activities.

    The National Guard Mission Gets Complicated

    Guard efforts at the end of May and the beginning of June 2020 were complicated by protests that followed the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis; National Guard troops were activated in more than 20 states to respond to large crowds gathering in protest.

    As such gatherings are often unpredictable and chaotic, the outbreak of fires, looting, and violence forced many state governors to call in Guard units to supplement local police forces.

    These troops were not participating in coronavirus containment efforts; they were called to duty specifically to provide support to law enforcement efforts to restore order. The country, at the time of this writing, suffers from two major problems at once requiring the assistance of National Guard troops.

    It remains to be seen whether the second call-up will persist as long as the first, but it’s likely that once order is restored in a continuous way the second call-up of Guard forces will end.

    But health officials warn that the large numbers of gatherings nationwide–due to protests over the death of George Floyd as well as earlier protests against COVID-19 lockdown measures themselves could bring a new influx of coronavirus cases. Such conditions could require further deployment of the National Guard in similar capacities as the first call-up.

    Comparing The Numbers

    The National Guard’s response to coronavirus is (at the time of this writing) the stronger one, numbers-wise.

    Compare some 40 thousand troops working across the United States to assist doctors, clinics, shelters, PPE manufacture, and much more to the some 17 thousand Guard troops mobilized by state governors across some 20 states to assist in restoring calm in areas hit hardest by looting and civil unrest.

    That comparison isn’t meant to diminish the Guard’s role in the cities experiencing nightly looting and fires, but the Guard response in call-ups to deal with the massive volumes of protesters on the streets nightly after curfews and other restrictions take place will likely be of shorter duration and require fewer numbers compared to the ongoing COVID-19 efforts the Guard is taking part in.

    The National Guard Bureau of Public Affairs says that in all deployments, the Guard’s priorities include the following:

    • Supporting civil authorities whose capabilities are “insufficient to meet current requirements”;
    • Protecting the life, property and safety of U.S. citizens;
    • Protecting critical U.S. infrastructure;
    • Bringing humanitarian assistance during disaster response / domestic emergencies;
    • Supporting designated law enforcement activities and operations;
    • Support for designated events, and other activities.

    Past Milestones

    During the week of April 20, 2020, nearly 37 thousand National Guard professionals were called upon to support the COVID-19 crisis response. By Monday, April 27, those numbers went up to 43,700.

    At press time, forty-three states, five more than last week, are approved to receive federal funding for station National Guard missions under the rules of Title 32, which, according to the National Guard official site, gives state governors more flexibility and longer access to Guard troops during the emergency.

    In May, the National Guard lists its coronavirus outbreak priorities as follows:

    • COVID-19 testing and screening
    • Warehousing medical supplies
    • Distributing medical supplies
    • Distributing food

    The Army and Air National Guard have been involved in a number of operations across the U.S. but the Illinois National Guard has an added factor; international cooperation.

    The Illinois Guard partnered with a medical team from Poland who were advising and supporting medical centers in Chicago until May 2nd, 2020. The team from Poland reported back to Italy and Poland with lessons and data it had collected from their time spent with the Illinois National Guard.

    Other notable Guard activities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic include:

    • Members of the Kansas National Guard are providing help for local food banks providing assistance for families sheltering-in-place;
    • The Joint Operations Center in New Jersey continues to coordinate Guard missions for some 700 troops supporting state efforts there;
    • The New Mexico National Guard is providing PPE training and local food bank assistance as part of COVID-19 operations;
    • Troops in Louisiana are pulling double-duty supporting local food banks by assembling and distributing food packages, but also by clearing debris and helping local areas recover from multiple tornadoes in the northeast part of Louisiana;
    • Connecticut National Guard troops have innovated a new mobile clinical lab for testing patients for COVID-19;
    • The Mississippi National Guard supported coronavirus operations by going overseas to evacuate U.S. citizens trapped in other countries by coronavirus travel restrictions and lockdowns; the Mississippi Air National Guard has repatriated nearly 100 Americans;
    • The California National Guard is helping to operate homeless shelters in Long Beach; California has nearly one-quarter of the entire homeless population of the United States;
    • The Texas National Guard has converted some of its barracks into quarantine facilities.
    • The Oregon Guard is helping distribute personal protective equipment to indigenous/First Nations tribes in the state;
    • The Pennsylvania Guard has opened a COVID-19 testing facility at Mohegan Sun Arena.

    As of April 21, 2020, National Guard COVID-19 activities also included:

    • 38 states, three territories and the District of Columbia are approved to use federal funds to pay for state Guard requirements under Title 32 authority
    • Of some 37,000 Guard troops, 28,700 are working as authorized for Title 32 troops
    • Treatment and/or support for some 672 Guard troops who are positive for COVID-19
    • Colorado ANG troops sew masks for their community
    • Florida NG troops assist nursing home COVID-19 testing
    • Michigan Guard troops help distribute personal protective equipment
    • Wisconsin Guard members help test for COVID-19 in area prisons
    • Pennsylvania Guard troops are assisting at nursing homes in the state
    • The New York Guard presence enters more than two months of support

    What does Title 32 status mean for the 38 states now working under it? Simply put, the states are able to call up the Guard without the burden of having to pay for it. The federal government picks up the tab under Title 32.

    TRICARE Controversy Addressed

    Initial controversy over Title 32 callups arose when it was pointed out that only Guard troops called to active duty for 31 days or more would be granted access to TRICARE health insurance options. Initial callups were only for 30 days, depriving the ability to qualify for TRICARE. That issue has been addressed in subsequent call-ups and some news sources report individual states moving to correct the original 30-day callups.

    What Are Guard Troops Actually Doing On The Ground?

    The official page of the National Guard includes a list of activities guard units are being tasked to perform. In addition to the general responses listed above, nationwide Guard troops are:

    • Building alternate care facilities
    • Augmenting medical staff at hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities
    • Supporting warehouse operations and logistics efforts related to medical equipment and critical supplies
    • Delivering and distributing food in hard-hit communities
    • Providing mortuary affairs assistance

    Headlines from April 15, 2020 noted global coronavirus cases passed two million. One day before, the White House issued a memorandum titled, Providing Federal Support for Governors’ Use of the National Guard to Respond to COVID-19.

    Discussions Of Stop-Loss?

    On April 10, some military-oriented publications ran stories discussing the DoD policy of stop-loss, which has been used in conflicts and anti-terrorist operations in the past but is not currently in effect. At the time of this writing, DoD leadership is unwilling to invoke stop-loss, which involves the involuntary extension of a servicemember’s active duty service commitment during a time of war, mission-critical operations, national emergency, etc.

    There is no stop-loss option on the table at the time of this writing according to statements made in the press by DoD officials including service secretaries such as the Secretary of the Air Force. That said, at least one branch of military service (the Air Force) seeks volunteers to remain in service.

    The document adds, “All States have activated their Emergency Operations Centers and are working to fight the spread of the virus”.

    All this is mentioned to explain the motivation behind the most recent measures by the federal government, “…To provide maximum support to the Governors of the States of Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Vermont as they make decisions about the responses required to address local conditions in each of their respective jurisdictions and as they request Federal support under the Stafford Act”.

    What kind of support is offered to these six states?

    • 100% funding by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for “emergency assistance activities associated with preventing, mitigating, and responding to the threat to public health and safety posed by the virus that these States undertake using their National Guard forces…”
    • The duration of 100% federal cost share for National Guard forces “is effective for orders of duty of a duration of 31 days or fewer” and such orders must be “effective no later than 2 weeks from the date of this memorandum”.

    National Guard Coroanvirus Response Numbers As Of April 15, 2020

    At the time of this writing, more than 31 thousand National Guard troops are supporting coronavirus efforts at the state level. All 50 states have declared emergencies, 40 states, the District of Columbia, and three United States territories have filed for federal Title 32 money.

    As of April 15, 2020, National Guard COVID-19 efforts include:

    • Operating 24-hour state Emergency Operations Centers
    • Partnering with civilian agencies and companies to supply personal protective equipment to first responders
    • Coordinating force health protection assessments
    • Mortuary affairs support
    • Traffic control support
    • Crowd control and social distancing control in public areas
    • Building alternate care facilities
    • Supporting warehouse operations
    • Delivering and distributing food
    • Supporting food banks
    • Screening operations for testing facilities

    New York has the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any other state in America at the time of this writing. Efforts in that hardest-hit area include pararescue troops from the New York Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing using their emergency medical training to help out hospitals there.

    The New York Guard also supports 10 drive-thru testing sites, which have performed over 5,000 tests and served more than one hundred thousand.

    At one point during the outbreak, Johns Hopkins University reported more than 330 thousand cases of coronavirus in the United States; the United States Surgeon General describes what lies ahead for the United States as a “Pearl Harbor moment” and also as a “9/11 moment.” Since then U.S. coronavirus cases have exceeded 600 thousand.

    National Guard Call-Ups And Health Care Issues

    Internet tabloid publication The Daily Beast ran an April 4, 2020 article discussing National Guard callups for service for the COVID-19 / coronavirus outbreak, calling attention to the fact that thousands of Guard troops have been activated on orders that put them a day short of being able to qualify for TRICARE.

    According to the Daily Beast, “the guardsmen are activated on orders that last 30 days. That puts them one single day shy of the requirement” that would permit these troops to have access to TRICARE coverage.

    That creates a potential problem for those who are outside their TRICARE coverage area and who require treatment.

    Federal News Network report from March 19, 2020 that National Guard officials are lobbying Congress to move all Guard call-ups to Title 32 orders that would provide federal funding for the Guard operations (instead of the State government paying for them)…but if the call-ups don’t meet the 31-day requirement for TRICARE, will this leave even more Guard members in a precarious position with regard to medical coverage?

    For clarification, we visited the TRICARE official site, which reports TRICARE eligibility for Guard Members, “…when you’re activated or ordered to active duty service for more than 30 days in a row., you become eligible for the same health and dental benefits as active duty service members”

    What service members are supposed to do for medical contingencies outside that coverage may depend on where and when medical needs first arose for the service member, what internal medical care contingencies might be in place for currently serving members or newly activated troops, etc.

    Guard members should discuss healthcare coverage and treatment concerns with their chain of command if the procedure for sick call, urgent care, routine care, or specialized care isn’t clear to activated troops who must serve outside their coverage areas.

    The National Guard reported a grim coronavirus milestone at the end of March 2020; Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the first coronavirus-related death of a National Guard member.

    “”Today is a sad day for the Department of Defense as we have lost our first American service member — active, Reserve or Guard — to coronavirus,” Esper said, adding that the loss was felt through the entire DoD community. “The news of this loss strengthens our resolve to work ever more closely with our interagency partners” to control the outbreak.

    This news comes on the heels of other developments in the fight against coronavirus. The Department of Defense announced that Guard and Reserve commanders have “broad discretion to reschedule, cancel, or determine other ways” for National Guard members to complete scheduled training requirements.

    The Department of Defense says it encourages the use of alternative duty locations where needed, and that when possible, “commanders will issue guidance to continue performing certain Reserve and National Guard duties via alternate duty locations.

    In situations that do not allow alternate duty locations, commanders will reschedule Inactive Duty Training (IDT) or grant authorized absences” for limited drill periods. All Guard and Reserve troops concerned about these issues should contact their chain of command for local-level clarification.

    What is the National Guard’s role in fighting the coronavirus? That depends greatly on how the National Guard is activated, by whom, and for what purpose. Did you know three different authorizations may be used to activate National Guard troops in times of war, national emergency, or insurrection?

    The Role Of The National Guard

    The Army National Guard and Air National Guard are a reserve force with units in every state. There are National Guard units in American territories and protectorates such as Guam, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

    There are 54 individual Guard organizations and about 450,000 Guard troops in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories. All members of the National Guard are members of the United States military and are subject to federal activation as well as state-directed activation. National Guard units are used for military operations and training at overseas locations and on domestic soil in times of war, national emergency, disasters, etc. National Guard troops are used domestically in place of active duty troops when federal law requires it. Capabilities include logistical, airlift, ground transportation, command and control, engineering, kitchens, tents and medical personnel.

    National Guard units are used for military operations and training at overseas locations and on domestic soil in times of war, national emergency, disasters, etc. National Guard troops are used domestically in place of active duty troops when federal law requires it.

    That includes the Posse Comitatus Act which outlaws deployment of active duty Army or Air Force troops for the purpose of enforcing the law, UNLESS specifically authorized by the Constitution, or by way of an act of Congress.

    National Guard troops have been used on domestic soil for this purpose, most notably during the Los Angeles riots, when the Insurrection Act was invoked to bring Guard troops in to restore calm.

    Activating The Guard During The Coronavirus

    The coronavirus outbreak and the American government’s response to it has proven to be an ever-changing situation. One day, federal officials and even the Commander-in-Chief were dismissing coronavirus fears as being something along the lines of a “hoax” or overhyped fears presented on a partisan basis; the next the President is announcing trillion-dollar relief measures.

    This has proven to be anxiety-producing for both citizens and the economy; the stock market’s continued volatility and the resultant quantitative easing measures announced by the Fed are among the chief indicators of a very fluid situation.

    In order to mobilize the Guard, a state of emergency must be declared. All 50 states have declared such emergencies, paving the way for mobilization for each state.

    State Guard Activations, Not Federal (Yet)

    At one time, activation of the National Guard at the time of this writing was not done in all states or a federal level. Over time, more than 27 states activated troops to be used at the state level to perform a variety of support functions. Those early activations included:

    • Arkansas
    • California
    • Colorado
    • Connecticut
    • Florida
    • Georgia
    • Iowa
    • Illinois
    • Kansas
    • Louisiana
    • Maryland
    • Montana
    • New Jersey
    • New Hampshire
    • New Mexico
    • New York
    • Pennsylvania
    • Rhode Island
    • South Carolina
    • Tennessee
    • Virginia
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin

    As of March 31, all 50 states and two U.S. territories all have some form of Guard assistance for coronavirus.

    Federal National Guard Activations

    The federal government has the authority to activate National Guard units for federal service, and has done so in the hardest-hit states. The earliest states to see such activations were:

    • New York
    • California
    • Washington

    These federal activations are in addition to the state-level National Guard activations already taking place. The Army Corps Of Engineers has also been tasked to help during the coronavirus, converting empty or unused structures into places where screening and treatment can take place.

    On March 27, Secretary of Defense Secretary Mark Esper changed the authorization process for activating National Guard forces under Title 32 Section 502(f). Esper’s changes included a conditional type of pre-approval for FEMA to allow faster mobilization of Guard troops where needed.

    A day later the following states joined New York, California, and Washington State in seeking Title 32 Guard activations:

    • Florida
    • Guam
    • Louisiana
    • Massachusetts
    • Maryland
    • New Jersey
    • Puerto Rico

    How The National Guard Is Used

    The support Guard troops gives may vary depending on the needs of each state, but in general the National Guard will help with medical issues, food or supply distribution, safety, and maintaining the “resiliency” of supply routes or sources.

    These men and women could also be deployed to perform disinfecting operations, transportation of medical crews or supplies, etc.

    Some members of the Guard are placed in Civil Support Teams, which are used in conjunction with civil agencies to deal with nuclear, chemical, and biological threats. Obviously the coronavirus outbreak and COVID-19 are the “biological” side of that mission.

    These troops are tasked with a variety of missions including training on personal protective gear and how first responders should carry on during the crisis.

    Examples of National Guard Activation

    • The New York National Guard is helping local officials distribute food, much of it in the hard-hit area of New Rochelle.
    • A Tennessee Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft delivered 500,000 swabs to be added to COVID-19 test kits in Memphis yesterday.
    • More than 500 soldiers are assisting with collecting samples from drive-through testing in Broward County, Florida.
    • In Maryland, the National Guard is supporting medical assessments and testing site operations.
    • The Wisconsin National Guard is supporting transportation missions for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
    • In Louisiana, the Guard liaison officers are assisting the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security in emergency preparedness.

    What The National Guard Is NOT Doing During The Coronavirus Outbreak

    At press time, the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, has not committed to federalizing Guard troops, preferring (at press time) to support state governors in their efforts to mobilize and utilize Guard forces. However, the federal government reserves the right to federalize Guard units when it’s deemed necessary.

    One thing that is NOT happening with Guard troops currently active across the some 23 states currently using them? The enforcement of martial law in the United States.

    No Martial Law

    There is no declaration of martial law on the state level or the federal level. Guard troops are being used to support ongoing operations at the state level, and while there have been news reports of Guard troops used to enforce restricted access rules/quarantine policies in New York, there has NOT been a declaration of martial law.

    No Federal Use Of Active Duty Forces

    Defense Secretary Mark Esper has gone on record stating that there are no plans to use active duty troops under Title 10 authorization at the federal level.

    Esper says at the time of his press statement there is a focus on using Guard forces first, then Reserves, and that there has not been a request or need at this time to consider a request for active duty soldiers, Marines, sailors, or airmen.

    No Hidden Stockpiles

    The Department of Defense does not maintain peacetime stockpiles of supplies for disaster recovery at home, and is required by law to coordinate with other federal agencies for disaster planning. Guard troops may be responsible for helping deliver supplies, but they are not stocked or have the ability to become stocked for supplies used to mitigate a domestic disaster or emergency.

    What Could Cause The National Guard To Be Mobilized At The Federal Level

    The President of the United States has already declared the coronavirus outbreak as a national emergency, but the government would be required to make a formal declaration to mobilize troops at the federal level.

    There are situations where military leadership can act without a specific presidential authorization; those include any immediate life-threatening situation, imminent disaster, etc.

    Such responses are considered short-term reactions and not long-term authorization to act unilaterally.

    When It’s All Over

    Even if a worst-case scenario even occurs and National Guard troops are activated, federalized, and deployed to help with a domestic virus outbreak, federal law dictates that the military’s job in such disasters must end as soon as it is deemed safe and practical to do so.

    A prolonged military operation on American soil is not something federal law is designed to permit indefinitely.

    In other words, those who have conspiracy-minded friends, family, or co-workers should know that federal disaster guidelines do NOT provide for an unlimited period of National Guard activation with no end.

    Deploying Guard troops is NOT a precursor to some kind of federal takeover, and there is no mechanism in place for establishing some kind of quasi-military rule over the country using National Guard, Reserve, or active duty troops as the mechanism for enforcing such an environment.

    In fact, federal guidelines include a requirement that there be clearly defined conditions that will force the drawdown of a mobilization once the immediate threats or problems have been dealt with.

    Other Ways the Military Has Responded to the Coronavirus

    • President Trump authorized the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard to recall up to 1,000,000 reserve troops for up to two years to battle coronavirus. The Executive Order (EO) did not who would be recalled but it is believed these individuals would be from the Inactive Ready Reserves. This EO is an authorization to do so but it is not an to order to do.
    • Two Navy hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy were prepared for deployment “as needed to assist potentially overwhelmed counties with acute patient care.
    • The U.S. Air Force flew 500,000 swabs for COVID-19 testing kits from Italy to Memphis, Tennessee.
    • There is the possibility the Army Corps of Engineers will be used to convert or construct new, temporary medical facilities.
    • A variety of military bases across the US can hold quarantined people. Five primary bases — three in California, one each in Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas — can hold up to 1,000 quarantined people. Quarantine Camps (nearest airport in parentheses): Camp Ashland, NE (OMA), Dobbins ARB, GA (ATL), Fort Carson, CO (COS), Fort Custer Training Center (DTW), Fort Hamilton, NY (JFK), Great Lakes Training Center Navy Base, IL (ORD), Joint Base Anacostia DC (IAD), Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ (EWR), Lackland ARB, TX (SAT), Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, TX (DFW), JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI (HNL), Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, CA (SAN), March ARB, CA (LAX), Naval Base Kitsap, WA (SEA), Travis AFB, CA (SFO)

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team