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The role of the National Guard is expanding, and some say its numbers should too

Texas Army National Guard Spc. Juan Hernandez carries bags of canned goods at the Endowment Community Resource Center in Edinburg, Texas, April 15, 2020.
Staff Sgt. DeJon Williams
Texas Military Department
Texas Army National Guard Spc. Juan Hernandez carries bags of canned goods at the Endowment Community Resource Center in Edinburg, Texas, April 15, 2020.

Natural disasters, domestic protests, foreign wars and COVID-19 are just a few of the missions that the Army and Air National Guard have been tasked with in recent years, and critics argue that heavy deployments are straining the force. Some states — like Texas, California, and Florida — are pleading for more troops so they can better rotate personnel.

On a recent weekday in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Jaime Carillo waited on his front porch for the van service that takes his son to school. The wait was shorter than it was earlier in the year, when a driver shortage crippled the school district’s transportation system.

“I had to take him to school for three weeks because the school bus didn’t go by,” Carillo said. “I had to get out of work to do it because I go in at 8 a.m… They (the district) told me there were problems, that there weren’t enough drivers. First the bus had to drop off one group of kids, then pick up another.”

That changed when the Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts called the National Guard to fill in. For a time, Carillo’s son was greeted by a uniformed military member behind the wheel.

Carillo told WBUR’s Carrie Jung that he appreciated how reliable the Guard members were. During the pandemic, he also saw them in places other than the driver’s seat, including at food distribution events and vaccine clinics.

“I’m happy they brought in the (National Guard) drivers. One feels more secure. They seem more prepared, but that’s just me.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Anthony Soto, superintendent of nearby Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts, has experienced the same problem in his district. When he learned that the Guard was being considered as a possible short-term solution, he was taken aback.

“I was very surprised,” Soto said. “But then, my next reaction was like, ‘Wow, the state is really paying attention to the issues that school districts are facing, and they're thinking outside the box and jumping in to help.'”

The bus driver deployment is just one example of how the National Guard’s role has expanded. Since last year, National Guard troops have been deployed repeatedly — not only by the president, but also by governors — who called them up to assist with pandemic relief, to respond to last summer’s protests and to patrol the southern border. That’s all while balancing wildfires, hurricanes and duties overseas.

Some state Guard leaders say troops enjoy the domestic missions because they can directly serve their neighbors. But they argue that back-to-back mobilizations aren’t sustainable.

“When you think about that impact on families and employers, it's pretty significant,” said Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard. “Then you add in the challenges of being in the middle of a pandemic, when there's so much uncertainty and moms and dads are pulled away from kids and families.”

Eifert said Florida needs more Guard troops so it can rotate them and relieve the strain. His counterparts in Texas and California are making similar arguments.

Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California National Guard, said his troops have been beleaguered by short notice domestic deployments, especially given this year’s intense wildfire season. Baldwin has recently lobbied for more force structure but hasn’t received it, and he’s critical of how the federal government allocates troops among the states and territories.

“Why would they not put Guard members where the population is? And take a look at the demand for response here in the homeland — to save the lives and property of the citizens of the United States — in the states that have the most emergencies?”

“I think it's so important that we increase the bottom line — that we increase the overall manpower and health of the guard to make sure more than those that have been doing the heavy lifting get their batteries recharged,” said Republican Tony Gonzales of Texas, one of more than 50 members of Congress asking the Defense Department to allocate more National Guard troops to bigger states — or make the Guard larger across the board.

The Defense Department decides how to distribute National Guard troops based on budgets passed by Congress. Changes in force structure from year to year are usually marginal because authorities want to make sure states can sustain their numbers through recruiting.

Retired Army colonel Mike Linick once managed that process for the Army and now works as a defense analyst for the RAND Corporation. He said he’s not hearing much discussion within Pentagon circles about increasing the size of the Guard for domestic missions. He guesses that’s partly because the Guard’s main purpose is national defense — not responding to governors' requests.

“I do think that there's an active debate amongst a lot of stakeholders about whether or not there are alternatives available to the governor that might be better suited for a long term shift in those kinds of patterns, rather than repeated requirements being placed on the National Guard,” Linick explained.

Linick argues the conversation should be more about how governors use their Guards, not how many Guard troops they have to use. He worries that the Guard's ever-expanding list of duties will drive people away from serving.

“What we've observed in the past is that the more often you call on reserve units to be used, the more pressures you have on retention... because the soldiers themselves often say this isn't really what I signed up for, if I wanted to be deployed this much or employed this much, I would have joined the regular Army.”

According to two leaders within the Adjutants General Association of the United States, that scenario has not yet come into play. Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, adjutant general of Nebraska, and Army Maj. Gen. John Harris Jr., adjutant general for Ohio, wrote in a paper that “best metric to assess strain on the force is retention,” and the Army National Guard is “experiencing the highest retention rates of its existence and has consistently outperformed Army expectations.”

Still Linick said it's unlikely the Pentagon will put a lot more money into the Guard relative to its other funding demands like active duty troops and equipment. State leaders say they’ll keep lobbying Congress and the Pentagon to help fund the Guard’s growing responsibilities.

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.