Updated: April 6
A Business Insider report dated March 25, 2020 reports as many as ten thousand National Guard troops were called up to help in the fight against COVID-19; that number (like the virus outbreak itself) has increased significantly since that time.
At press time, more than 17 thousand National Guardsmen are working in support of coronavirus containment, testing, and treatment procedures at the direction of their governors in many states, two territories, and the District of Columbia.
Johns Hopkins University reports more than 330 thousand cases of coronavirus in the United States as of this update, and 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.”
But the call-ups have not been without controversy.
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 callups 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 there are three different authorizations that 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:
- New Jersey
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
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
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:
- 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 is Responding 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)
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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