ARLINGTON, Va. – The Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader has dubbed 2020 the “year of the Guard” after states frequently called on units to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest and natural disasters.
“This has been an unprecedented year for the Army National Guard,” said Command Sgt. Maj. John Sampa during an Association of the U.S. Army discussion Wednesday.
At its busiest time, the National Guard had over 120,000 Soldiers and Airmen on duty serving around the world in early June. At least 90,000 of them either worked in COVID-19 or civil disturbance operations following the death of George Floyd.
“Those are numbers that you just wouldn’t think about as a Guardsman in these days and times,” Sampa said. “That’s why we’re so proud of our Guard members out there.”
According to Guard officials, other missions included support to 22 states after a record number of named storms hit the country and assistance to help stamp out wildfires in 19 states and cyber elections support in 20 states.
Soldiers from the Minnesota Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, for instance, had a whirlwind five-month period that saw them conduct a variety of missions. First, they were activated for the pandemic response before being called on again to help local authorities curb riot activity.
The unit then executed a successful rotation at the National Training Center in California that resulted in an operational rating of about 95%, Sampa said.
“That’s a huge lift for those folks,” he said. “For those Soldiers to do all that within five months, that’s where the power of the Guard is. Citizen-Soldiers can adapt to the environment, respond to communities as well as to the call of the nation.”
While some combat training center rotations had to be canceled due to COVID-19, Sampa said there are plans to make those up this fiscal year.
“It has not stopped our deployment process,” he added. “Those units that are scheduled for deployment are meeting all the training requirements they need to meet. It has not changed any of that. We’re still deploying and redeploying Soldiers continuingly.”
More than 57,000 Guardsmen are currently deployed overseas in every combatant command, including peacekeeping operations in Djibouti, Sinai, Kuwait, and Poland.
Guardsmen also faced challenges when the Defense Department temporarily halted official travel in the spring, which affected monthly drill training and travel to military schools.
“It had a big effect on the Guard,” Sampa said.
The order forced Guard units to revise their in-person training assemblies to online courses, allowing Soldiers to obtain military credit and compensation for the required training.
“Those weekend drills are so important because, by statute, those Soldiers have to have a certain amount of training assemblies to have a good year if they plan on retiring or meeting their service obligation,” he said.
Soldiers slated to attend professional military education were also promoted the day they were supposed to enroll in their course. The required courses then needed to be completed in a specified timeframe, up to 24 months, depending on the course after the travel ban was lifted in late May.
“When the stop-movement order was lifted, that’s when the clock started,” he said, adding there are still some exceptions due to the current COVID-19 environment.
Despite the difficult times, the Army National Guard still made its end strength goal of 336,000 Soldiers last fiscal year, he said. He also noted that 97% of new recruits sent to initial military training returned to Guard units fully trained.
“We’re very proud of that number,” he said. “Because we have one shot at getting the Soldier through basic training and [advanced individual training].”