Thomas P. Kilgannon, Dulles, Virginia – In the last week, members of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania National Guard deployed to long-term care facilities in their states to support elderly residents who’ve been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Guardsmen will help with everything from assisting medical teams to performing custodial duties to provide relief to overwhelmed institutions.
It’s the latest example of how the women and men of America’s National Guard have answered the call to duty. They are an indispensable asset and are, in unprecedented fashion, fighting COVID-19 in each of the states and territories. These citizen soldiers have been pulled from their families to provide vital services. During this Military Appreciation Month, we should note the unique role they play, and the very different responsibilities they accept, for the defense of our nation and the safety of our communities.
The thought of strong, healthy soldiers deploying to elderly care facilities doesn’t normally elicit images of danger until we remember the viral nature of this germ and the rate of infection in mismanaged nursing homes. Sadly, losses in long-term care facilities account for half of New Jersey’s COVID-19 deaths and 68 percent of Pennsylvania’s fatalities.
I recently spoke with Major General (USA Retired) John Gronski, who served as the Commander of the National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division in Pennsylvania and completed his 40-year career as Deputy Commanding General (National Guard), U.S. Army Europe. General Gronski said in helping with the COVID pandemic, “the Guard provides a lot of relief to the civil authorities. Many soldiers,” he explained, “offer critical skills to help with medical needs, logistics and communications while other units take care of assignments like security, packaging, and transportation.”
In fact, the next time you see a hamburger available in your grocery store, you can thank Guardsmen – along with ranchers, meat packers, and truckers – for getting it on the shelf. They are helping to keep meat processing plants running in Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, among others.
In New York, the National Guard is both keeping people alive and collecting the dead. Those with medical training cared for more than one thousand patients at the Javits Center before it closed, and this unit from Niagara Falls assisted with mortuary affairs by retrieving deceased bodies from homes and hospitals across the city.
While these are needed assignments, in this pandemic there have been questionable uses of the Guard, too. In the nation’s capital, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the Guard to quell a floral insurrection when fresh air enthusiasts gathered to see the cherry blossoms. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo had soldiers going door-to-door and they weren’t selling Girl Scout cookies. They were searching for New Yorkers who dared to escape the chaos of the Empire State. Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit declined an offer from the Michigan Guard to hand out meals to hungry residents because the uniform might offend city residents.
Wisconsin’s April 7 primary election is believed to be the first time the National Guard has been used to work the polls. Officials in Philadelphia may do the same, suggesting they could ask for as many as 1,500 Pennsylvania Guardsmen to work the June 2 primary election. Using Guardsmen as primary poll workers is being considered in Kentucky, Arizona, and New Mexico. Elections are of vital importance, but it is the responsibility of average citizens to help political parties choose their candidates for the general election. Using citizen soldiers will only lead to them being politicized and a loss of public trust.
The roughly 450,000 men and women of the National Guard serve a unique, dual purpose by reporting to both to the President and their governor, depending on their mission and status. Since 9-11, the Guard has repeatedly gone to Iraq and Afghanistan under the command of the President. In fact, even during COVID-19, Guard units from Iowa and Minnesota will deploy to Afghanistan. The Iowa Guard will send 400 troops to Kosovo, and the Florida Guard shipped out to Asia on Mother’s Day.
Guard units in Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee, among others recently responded to help in the aftermath of deadly tornados. In The Last Frontier, pararescue operators of the Alaska Air National Guard saved an elderly couple, not from COVID-19, but from raging ice and flood waters that nearly claimed their lives.
At home and abroad, the men of women of our National Guard have their hands full. Let’s be sure they are deployed for the right reasons and the most necessary situations. And let’s be sure to keep them in our prayers.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.