ARLINGTON, Va. – Americans regard the National Guard as a U.S.-based force, but, in truth, it's hard to go anywhere in the world and not see a Soldier wearing an Army National Guard patch.
The past few months, there were 77,000 Army Guard members and over 100,000 National Guard members on duty, Army Lt. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, said during an interview.
There are 335,000 Army National Guard Soldiers in the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Today, there are more than 22,000 Army National Guardsmen deployed as part of the warfighting mission for the joint force. This has been consistent since the early 2000s, the general said.
"As you look into the future, you know, we're going to continue to do that as the combat reserve of the Army and as an operational reserve," he said. "But we'll also simultaneously always be that response back home, as well."
The National Guard has personnel deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti, Europe, the Pacific, Guantanamo and many other countries. State Guardsmen also maintain contacts with many foreign militaries under the State Partnership Program.
But over the past months of this year, the National Guard has been ubiquitous: helping medical authorities combat COVID-19; working with civilian authorities to fight fires throughout the West; helping communities hit by weather events; and helping calm areas wracked by violence.
Early on, the Guard was used to help civil authorities against COVID-19. "We've still got over 18,500 Guardsmen in support of COVID-19 response with more than 15,000 of them from the Army Guard," Jensen said. "I think we'll continue to do that mission, obviously, until the pandemic's over."
To date, Guardsmen have administered more than 8 million COVID-19 tests. They're also helping in long-term care facilities.
"Our logistics effort has been amazing, as well, with over 350 million meals that have been delivered and 12,000 tons of bulk food," he said.
When the virus first hit, there were concerns about medical facility space. Guardsmen worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to create alternate care facilities in major cities. "Ultimately, we built a 15,000-bed capability that didn't exist prior to the pandemic," Jensen said.
The Guard has also been involved in contact tracing – identifying those positive for COVID-19, then contacting those who were near the person with the positive case.
These missions will continue, and the Guard will probably be called upon to help once a vaccine is developed and deemed safe. Jensen was clear that the Guard has not been asked to do anything yet, but prudent planning requires consideration. The Guard, with its all-terrain vehicles and helicopter assets, could help transport the vaccine to hard-to-reach places. Guard personnel could also help with the actual administration of the vaccine.
"We all know that the key to this thing is going to be getting a vaccine and then getting the vaccine out to the population," the general said. "We will be ready to do whatever is asked."
And the Guard is doing all sorts of other missions to support fellow citizens. The Army National Guard is actively engaged in fighting 76 wildfires in the West. This year is on track to be the worst fire season since 2003, officials said. In California alone, more than 900 National Guard personnel are helping state authorities and firefighting crews. Guard aviators rescued several hundred civilians and are battling 23 fires that have burned nearly 2 million acres.
Guardsmen are also helping in Colorado, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho and Utah. They are working on 53 fires that have charred over 830,000 acres.
The year is tough. In fiscal 2018, the Guard helped with wildland fire suppression operations for 26 fires. Last year, it was for 12 fires.
The hurricane season is also at its height. There are still more than 3,000 Soldiers in Louisiana and Texas helping the states recover from Hurricane Laura. Now, Hurricane Sally has made landfall along the Gulf Coast.
The Guard also has about 2,000 Soldiers supporting the Southwest border mission. "And that mission will grow," Jensen said.
The National Guard was also called upon to help in the civil disturbances following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Jensen – who was the adjutant general of Minnesota before taking his current job – said he also noticed the calming effect of the Guardsmen. "I think the National Guard has gained a tremendous amount of public trust and confidence due to our overseas deployments," he said.
He also noted that Guardsmen have been prominent in the COVID-19 response and other high-profile civil support missions dating to Hurricane Katrina. "Whether it's hurricanes or wildfires or ice storms or COVID-19, I think there is just a great amount of awareness and appreciation for what the Guard has been doing since 9-11, and what the Guard has continued to do," Jensen said.
The final piece of that puzzle is the Guard as part of the communities they serve.
"We're in over 2,600 communities across the country," he said. "In Minnesota … our little motto [is]: 'We live here. We work here. We serve here.' There's just a very strong community connection to the National Guard, and that when we come, we arrive in a non-threatening way. And I think that has been appreciated. And I think people have responded to that."