WASHINGTON — Senior leaders from across the National Guard sounded off on the impact of continuing state missions during an Oct. 12 panel at the Association of the U.S. Army conference and a subsequent media roundtable.
Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager, who commands the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division, even said her troops have been “a victim of our own success.”
“The governor knows that when there’s a problem he can’t solve, he can come to the National Guard and we’ll get it done,” she said.
Traditionally, in California, that has meant providing crews for wildland firefighting and responding when needed to civil disturbances across the state. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that pattern, leading to thousands of Guard troops being utilized for months at a time.
The pandemic has also seen a key change for the governors’ political calculus. The federal government is covering 100 percent of the costs associated with pandemic response, to include even missions addressing second-order effects of the disease — like food insecurity and a shortage of school bus drivers in some states.
“Over the last 18 months, the 100 percent reimbursement of our forces has actually disincentivized the state [from] releasing our forces from the mission,” Yeager said. “There were some periods of time where I had medics — I have very limited medical support in my state — [who] were on orders, but they were not on mission for almost two months.”
Yeager noted that the idle time was “incredibly bad for morale, but because the state wasn’t participating in any kind of cost sharing, there was no incentive for them to release [the troops].”
While many of these ongoing missions are primarily staffed with volunteers, as Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers of the Michigan National Guard noted, Yeager said the state duty has had an impact on equipment readiness in some cases.
But when governors call, the Guard answers their respective commanders-in-chief, regardless of political intentions or perceived actual need, Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, explained.
“What may be described as a political decision can also be described as a security decision, depending on where you sit on [an] issue,” Jensen said. “So what we look at is, whoever’s making the decision — are they making the decision within their authority, [and] is it a legal order?”
“If the answers to that are all yes, then obviously we need to go to the mission,” Jensen added. “We can’t get caught up on whether [a mission] is a political issue or not.”
Yeager wants to see states foot part of the bill, though.
“In the future,” she argued, states should have “some skin in the game.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.