ARLINGTON, Va. – Tears. It’s what greeted a Michigan National Guard Soldier delivering protective equipment to 15 to 20 relieved and very appreciative nursing facility workers during the height of the pandemic.
“That really opened my eyes to what’s really going on out there,” said Army Staff Sgt. Jacob Schrot, with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 125th Regiment, 63rd Troop Brigade.
Eye-opening would also be an apt description of the National Guard’s historic homeland response accomplishments in 2020. Whether serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic; responding with compassion and professionalism to record civil disturbances across the nation; or rescuing hundreds of people trapped by wildfires that carpeted millions of acres in the West, National Guard members logged more than 8.4 million days serving their communities in fiscal year 2020.
All this, noted Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, while meeting every overseas security requirement.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our National Guard’s efforts to help our communities heal in this unprecedented time,” said Hokanson, who was sworn in as the NGB’s 29th chief in August, succeeding Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, who retired.
As early as mid-February, the Guard was supporting coronavirus response efforts to local agencies.
Soldiers with the Washington Army National Guard’s 341st Military Intelligence Battalion translated safety and preparedness messages into multiple languages, helping people who don’t speak English understand how to avoid the coronavirus.
Weeks later, the world began to take notice of Guard response efforts when video emerged of California Air National Guard crew members rappelling from an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to deliver test kits to a cruise ship at sea.
“The COVID-19 mission was a unique tasking for our team,” said Chief Master Sgt. Seth Zweben, a pararescueman with the California Air Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing. “It did not necessarily classify as a classic ‘rescue’ mission, but it certainly contributed to saving lives.”
As the onslaught of the pandemic spread into the spring – wreaking havoc on the nation’s economy and threatening public health – the Guard quickly stepped up its efforts, staffing call centers, organizing alternative care sites, administering testing and sanitizing facilities.
In New York City, Guard members had the somber duty of assisting authorities with the dignified removal of remains as health care personnel became overwhelmed when coronavirus-related deaths spiked.
“Everyone understands the gravity of the situation,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin, the officer in charge of a fatality search and recovery team with the New York Air National Guard’s 107th Attack Wing. “It’s a mentally and physically taxing job.”
Across the nation, Guard members trained first responders how to use personal protective equipment, or PPE, and distributed the equipment. They also worked at food banks, augmenting civilians who ordinarily organize, package and distribute food.
“I am glad I am [here], just helping people out and serving the community,” said Spc. Josh Canales, a combat engineer with the Virginia Army National Guard’s Company A, 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion. “To know that just because there are bad things happening, good things are coming out of it.”
While the pandemic response would continue throughout the year, Guard members in 23 states and the District of Columbia would be activated by the end of May to respond to civil disturbances.
Guard members were primarily used to assist local law enforcement and first responders.
During demonstrations, Army Master Sgt. Acie Matthews Jr., an equal employment opportunity adviser with the Minnesota Army National Guard, approached protesters – armed with only a helmet and a sense of duty to connect.
“We’re on the same team,” he told one protester. “This is Minnesota’s Army. We’re not some outside force that just came in here.”
District of Columbia National Guard members had similar feelings.
“I live about a 15-minute walk from here, [and] there are a lot of people who want to come out and protest, and they are a little unsure about whether it’s a safe thing to do,” said Army 1st Lt. John McGlothlin, with the D.C. Guard. “We’re trying to make sure they feel safe enough to come out here and express their opinions.”
By early June, more than 86,000 Guard members were performing domestic missions in support of governors – a record number, and the largest homeland response activation since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
But civil disturbances and a global pandemic weren’t the only challenges the Guard faced in 2020.
As massive wildfires raged throughout the West, Guard members were called in to augment firefighters, protect property, provide real-time aerial images to incident command centers, drop water from helicopters, and spray retardant on fires via the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS).
“This is a very large fire, [and] we’ve been sent out to the high-risk areas with the most fire activity to cut some hand lines directly against the fire line – basically preventing fires from impeding on some of the communities around here,” said Air Force Capt. Joseph Tabor, a fire crew team leader with the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing.
While wildfires proved to be a threat to the infrastructure of those communities, to others, it was life or death.
In early September, pilots and crew members with the California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade braved treacherous conditions to rescue nearly 400 people inside the Sierra National Forest.
Limited visibility from the heavy smoke, and flying at night, made the mission very difficult, recalled Army Sgt. George Esquivel, a helicopter mechanic with the California Army Guard’s B Company, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment.
“I can’t really describe my initial reaction because [the] training just kicked in,” Esquivel said. “One of the first things that we all agreed on was we need to put the aircraft down safely. Without the aircraft and the crew being safe, there is no mission, and we can’t help anyone out.”
What happened next would be something he would describe as “the worst sight of my life” and “apocalyptic,” with flames all around, making their way up to campers, hikers and area residents – some critically injured – needing to be evacuated.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Irvin Hernandez, a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter pilot with the California Army Guard, said his senses were heightened the whole time.
“We’re not a godsend or special,” he insisted. “We’re just ordinary people who did [a] job, and we love it.”
As the wildfires raged, Guard units in Gulf Coast states responded to hurricane recovery efforts.
After Hurricane Zeta made landfall in late October, Mississippi National Guard members were on hand to assist at distribution sites — providing water, food, tarps, hand sanitizer and masks.
“We are providing aid – much-needed aid – to the people impacted by Zeta,” said Army Sgt. Derrick Woulard, infantryman with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 155th Infantry Regiment, 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team. “As a Gulf Coast resident myself, I feel excited and honored to help these people – my neighbors.”
In addition to distributing supplies, Guard members from units across the nation responded to Hurricanes Isaias, Laura and Sally, supporting state and local officials with logistics, transportation and traffic control.
The year also saw the continued growth of the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program, or SPP, which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide.
In August, the Texas National Guard paired with the Arab Republic of Egypt as part of the SPP.
“The Texas (Guard) is proud to play a key role in the overall U.S.–Egypt relationship,” said Army Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard. “The formal establishment of our partnership through the State Partnership Program codifies and makes official a relationship between our militaries that has been in the making for decades.”
During the year, some Guard units even strengthened their ties with their partners by joining the fight against the coronavirus.
In May, Soldiers and Airmen with the Illinois National Guard worked alongside members of the Polish Military Medical Corps – observing, advising and assisting at medical facilities in the Chicago area and sharing best practices learned from its own COVID-19 response efforts.
“The Polish military’s support to us here in Illinois during a global pandemic is a testament to the depth and commitment on both sides of our state partnership with Poland,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard R. Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard. “[Our] Soldiers have fought side-by-side with Polish Soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and now, we fight a whole different type of enemy together.”
The SPP now includes partnerships with 89 countries.
Having that global footprint also meant continued warfight deployments for Guard members.
Airmen with the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 155th Air Refueling Wing supported a U.S. Central Command mission in March by providing aircraft refueling operations, and maintenance, logistical and medical personnel.
“The National Guard is always ready, so we’re always responding,” said Air Force Col. Robert Hargens, the commander of the wing. “We are still able to maintain a very robust capability here in the state … even with the challenges that are happening right now.”
For some Guard units in other states, part of their response involved providing cyber units to assist with election security.
“Cyberattacks are unfortunately becoming more and more prevalent and can be executed by a hostile government or non-governmental players from anywhere in the world,” said Army 2nd Lt. David Parsons, a cybersecurity manager with the West Virginia Army National Guard. “Our democratic election process is a defining part of what makes our nation a beacon to the world, (and) protecting that process and making sure our fellow West Virginians can be confident in their voting process is an important mission.”
Annual exercises like Cyber Shield 2020, noted Neely, bring an added layer of readiness to all Guard cyber missions while building partnerships in the civilian sector.
“At Cyber Shield, we train on vital cyber skills, but we also train on teamwork with partners who come from different backgrounds,” he said. “Battle drills help us establish and exercise the framework for future responses to cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure, communities, states and our nation.”
The Guard’s space mission also soared in 2020.
Early in the year, the Counter Communications System Block 10.2, an electronic warfare system used by some Air National Guard units in support of the United States Space Force, achieved operating capability. According to Air Force Lt. Col. Warren Riner, a National Guard Bureau space functional area manager, the accomplishment highlights the Air Guard’s unique ability to tap civilian talent.
“The advantage of the National Guard’s unique relationship of Citizen-Airmen working full-time in industry with mission partners allows us to create a continuous feedback loop between system operators and contractors – providing the best counter communications system,” said Riner.
In May, National Guard members in Alaska and Hawaii provided search and rescue support as NASA launched its first manned space mission since 2011.
“We provide the rescue network with the C-17 (Globemaster III),” said Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Davis, with the 154th Wing and head planner for the mission. “It’s an exciting moment to be able to return to such a meaningful mission.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick J. Cobb, NGB’s deputy director of space operations, likened the Guard’s space mission to a relatively new military domain that took shape about a decade ago – cyber.
“We are only scratching the surface of space right now,” he said.
As the Guard’s space mission continued to evolve, many Guard units closed out the year combating the spread of the coronavirus. Guard members from 50 states, three territories and D.C. logged over 6.9 million days in 2020 conducting more than 9.3 million COVID-19 tests and screenings; sanitizing 2,300 facilities; serving and delivering 584 million meals; and distributing 387 million masks, gloves, gowns and PPE.
“Our Soldiers and Airmen are fully committed to this fight,” said Army Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, the adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard, which administered more than a half-million COVID-19 tests by late November. “They have sacrificed their well-being, while being away from families and the comforts of home, so we can try to conquer this pandemic and save lives.”
And fighting what many described as the “invisible enemy” would require the careful collection and transportation of the first COVID-19 vaccines.
Again, Guard members – such as those with the Oklahoma National Guard – rose to the occasion.
“I signed up to help my community, and to be able to do it firsthand during the pandemic has been really rewarding to me,” said Spc. Martin Gamarra, with the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s 90th Troop Command.
Gamarra was a member of one of two Oklahoma Guard teams collecting and transporting the vaccines to health care professionals across the state in mid-December.
“I never thought I’d be working with other (state government) branches, let alone the health department, and it’s awesome to see firsthand how hard these nurses work every day with COVID-19,” Gamarra said. “Seeing the vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
In a year teeming with challenges, Hokanson said the Guard stands ready for what may come.
“As 2020 has shown us time and again, our work is invaluable to our communities, states, and nation – and we have plenty of work to do,” he said. “This is an important and pivotal time in the Guard’s history. What we do now, and what we do next, will ultimately shape our nation’s future.”