ARLINGTON, Va. – The Army National Guard continues to play a vital role in national security, providing forces that are both warfighting capable and governor responsive, the Army Guard's top general said at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference.
"Just a couple months ago, at our highest point in June, we had 99,000 Army Guardsmen supporting COVID-19 response, civil unrest response and the overseas mission," Army Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, the director of the Army Guard, said during a symposium at the conference that included a panel discussion on the Army Guard's busy year.
Additionally, Army Guard Soldiers have also responded to wildfires, hurricanes and provided support along the Southwest border in what some have been calling the "Year of the Guard."
"The scope of response has been incredible," Jensen said Oct. 13 at the conference, held virtually this year. He added that the missions undertaken by the Army Guard fill out the National Guard's mission triad of supporting the warfight, responding in the homeland and building enduring partnerships.
But, stressed Jensen, it's the Army Guard's ability to train for and complete the combat mission that allows it to be successful in other areas, such as responding to COVID-19.
Still ongoing, Army Guard members have supported COVID-19 response efforts in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Early response efforts focused on New York City, which was one of the first COVID-19 epicenters in the U.S.
"We started with 200 Soldiers in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle and quickly grew to more than 3,700 troops across the state," said Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Shields, the adjutant general of the New York National Guard.
New York Army Guard members took on missions such as disinfecting high traffic public areas and distributing food to those who needed it.
"Between March and August, we distributed more than 52 million meals in New York City alone and almost another 2 million upstate," said Shields.
They also provided logistical support for the COVID-19 response.
"Our transportation, logistical and warehousing efforts exceeded anything we had ever done previously," said Shields. "We staffed seven warehouses holding over 30,000 pallets of supplies with logistics Soldiers for reception, tracking and delivery of critical items."
Perhaps the most noteworthy mission was converting New York City's Jacob K. Javits Conference Center into a temporary medical facility, said Shields.
"A first was working with the Army Corps of Engineers to construct alternative care facilities and to convert the Javits Convention Center in New York City into a medical center that eventually treated 1,095 COVID-19 patients," said Shields.
New York Army Guard members also worked behind the scenes staffing COVID-19 call centers, assisting the New York City medical examiner's office and processing COVID-19 test kits at state labs.
Shields said the geographic area of the response effort was one of the biggest challenges New York Guard members faced.
"The COVID pandemic response was across our entire state," said Shields. "There was no region that could draw personnel or resources that wasn't already preparing or involved in pandemic response."
That was different from previous response efforts, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that focused on specific areas.
But the New York Guard was able to meet that challenge, said Shields.
"The Soldiers and Airmen of the New York National Guard have done a tremendous job in being flexible and responsive to the needs of their fellow citizens," he said.
Throughout this year, Army Guard members have also been kept busy by wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state.
"Nearly 2,000 members from the California National Guard and surrounding states are involved in battling wildfires," said Jensen.
In California, wildfires have been burning in roughly 4,700 square miles of the state, or an area roughly the size of Connecticut, said Army Maj. Gen. Matthew Beavers, the California National Guard's assistant adjutant general for Army.
California Army National Guard Soldiers have played a big role in response efforts, both on the ground and in the air.
"Our rotary-wing aviators have flown 901 hours, dropped 1.93 million gallons of water across 2,335 drops," said Beavers, adding that includes aircrews who flew through heavy smoke and fire to rescue some 200 people trapped by wildfires near Fresno, California.
"It demonstrates the capability of our Army aviators and the unique opportunity this type of flying delivers," said Beavers. "We are flying at high altitudes, at night under night vision goggles with limited visibility. It's very high-precision flying."
The flying, said Beavers, also increases readiness for the Guard's warfight mission.
"These experiences are unparalleled and really speak to the very nature of Army aviation," he said. "This type of flying builds readiness. Our crews aren't simply doing laps around Fort Hood banking hours. This type of flying absolutely ensures that lives will be saved in the warfight."
Aircrews from the California Army Guard aren't the only ones who have responded to wildfires in the Golden State. Additional aircrews and aircraft from surrounding states and across the country have assisted under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. The EMAC allows for Guard assets in one state to be used seamlessly in another, should there be a need.
"We have 15 helicopters from across the Army Guard," said Beavers. "We are forever indebted to them for supporting us, and we're likely to get additional aircraft from Mississippi and Oklahoma."
Those additional assets, and the Army Guard's ability to respond, have meant positive results, said Beavers.
"We're achieving the desired effects at the right time and the right place to save lives," he said.
Army Guard Soldiers have also helped respond to civil disturbances after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. In Wisconsin, Army Guard members were also brought on duty in August when Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha.
"Much like the rest of the country, protests began in cities across Wisconsin in the days following his death," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard. "Unfortunately, a few of those protests turned violent."
The Wisconsin Guard received a request for assistance from Kenosha County. Upon approval from Wisconsin's governor, 125 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers were mobilized Aug. 24 and on the ground in Kenosha, said Knapp.
That number would increase to more than 2,000 Soldiers. Knapp stressed that Guard members were on duty in support of local officials. "We always serve in a supporting role," he said, adding that partnerships with state and local agencies were critical.
"Our partnership with local officials, local law enforcement and federal agencies paid off in ensuring that we could all preserve public safety, while simultaneously facilitating an environment in which people could safely exercise their First Amendment rights to demonstrate peacefully," said Knapp.
Army Guard members also continued to train for the warfight mission, using prevention measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Army guidelines to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"We executed a medical screening process and direct leadership involvement with each Soldier and their family to mitigate the risk of exposure," said Army Col. Timothy Kemp, commander of the Minnesota Army National Guard's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, whose unit took part in a brigade training rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.
The brigade trained at Fort Hood last summer and was gearing up for its NTC training rotation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"We had make-up gunnery and an aggressive staff training plan scheduled to conduct prior to NTC when the United States and Minnesota were impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus," he said, adding that sidelined training for several months. But many of the brigade's medical troops had been part of COVID-19 response efforts, which allowed for training to resume.
"While restarting our training, we learned how experienced our medical providers were with the virus, allowing them to make accurate assessments and recommendations in an ambiguous environment," he said.
Before training at NTC, however, the brigade needed to test 5,000 Soldiers from 20 states. Mobile testing sites were set up at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.
"We conducted social distancing movement to those two locations," he said. "Soldiers were tested upon arrival at Camp Ripley and Fort Knox, utilizing those labs. They connected to their movement to NTC, where upon arrival, they were screened once again."
During NTC training, Soldiers who exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 were quarantined and tested.
"Contact tracing was conducted and medical assessments were completed," said Kemp. "Soldiers were returned to the unit and back to the fight once medically released."
Executing the continual testing involved multiple moving parts, Kemp added.
"Every day was a continuous consolidation and reorganization of forces at each echelon and a reassessment of the human capabilities based on their manpower," he said.
However, the training at NTC honed the brigade's skills, allowing the unit to be deployment ready.
"NTC is so critical for the development of our armored brigade combat teams in the Army National Guard and in preparation for our federal mission," said Kemp. "The Army's tremendous support of the execution of our NTC rotation demonstrates how the Army can continue to train and prepare to meet global threats."
While the training may have been complicated by COVID-19, executing those training missions – especially large-scale training – is critical to the Army Guard's ability to respond at home and overseas, said Jensen.
"Training is critical to our mission," he said. "It's those complicated missions that keep us sharp. Readiness is very important to the National Guard."
That readiness, said Jensen, directly translated to the Army Guard's ability to perform throughout the year.
"There is no doubt this year has been the Year of the Guard," he said. "Always ready, always there."