By Sandi Gohn

Most of the time, they look just like the rest of us — going to work, picking the kids up from school or working out in the gym. But roughly once a month, or whenever duty calls, members of the U.S. National Guard voluntarily swap their civilian clothes for a camouflage uniform and head to their other job as a citizen soldier or airman. Here, they’ll prepare for the moments when their nation needs them most.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is one of those moments.

Over the past few weeks, more than tens of thousands of Guard members have been mobilized to assist state and national agencies across the country in the fight against the disease.

Photo credit DVIDS/Staff Sgt. John Vannucci

Army Sgt. Cora Brown is in protective gear, training to administer COVID-19 tests to the public.

Some are serving as medical professionals, like Army Sgt. Jacob Winton of the Tennessee National Guard, or are 3D printing face shields, like Tech. Sgt. Alan Pasel of the West Virginia National Guard. Others, like members of the Maryland National Guard’s 175th Logistics Readiness Squadron, are working to making sure precious supplies and equipment get where they need to be. Still others, like members of the California or Michigan National Guard, are simply helping local essential service providers, like food banks, maintain business as usual.

More than 120 guardsmen from the WA NG were activated to support food banks across Washington state as part of the state’s COVID-19 response efforts. | Photo credit DVIDS/Master Sgt. Tim Chacon

True to its motto of “Always Ready, Always There,” the scope, expertise and history of the National Guard has specially equipped it to be one of the United States’ best weapons in the fight against COVID-19.

What is the National Guard’s Mission?

Founded over 383 years ago in Massachusetts, the National Guard was created to help sustain and protect the then-infant colonies. Unbeknownst to its founders, the National Guard would go on to become part of the greatest fighting force in the world, participating in every major U.S. conflict since 1636.

Today, the National Guard has a unique dual mission: providing trained units to the nation and to individual U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia. The National Guard consists of the Army National Guard and the Air Force National Guard.

Individuals who sign up for the National Guard commit to several years of service, which they complete on a part-time basis. After completing basic training and advanced individual training (where they learn how to do their specific job), members of the National Guard must work one weekend a month and two full weeks of the year to honor their commitment. Additionally, members of the National Guard can be tapped for long and short-term deployments, both stateside and overseas.

Members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard Reserves operate on a similar operational cadence, although they have a different, singular mission of providing trained units to the nation as a whole.

Photo credit DVIDS/Master Sgt. Michael Davis

Staff Sgt. Keith Gomo assists the Vermont Department of Health with unloading pallets of medical supplies and organizing them for redistribution on March 31, 2020.

How Does the National Guard Get Activated?

There are three different ways National Guard Service Members can be called into service:

1. Each states’ executive leader (typically the governor) can activate National Guard units. In this case, the governor will serve as the commander-in-chief and the state will pay for the cost.

More than 2,000 Maryland National Guard members are activated to support Maryland’s response to COVID-19. | Photo credit DVIDS/Sgt. Chazz Kibler

2. The president can federalize the National Guard under Title 10 status. In this case, the president will serve as the commander-in-chief, active-duty officers will command Guard forces and the federal government will pay the cost. This is what happened during Hurricane Katrina.

(The Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard Reserves operate under a Title 10 status and report directly to the president.)

3. The president can federalize the National Guard under Title 32 status. In this case, each states’ governor will serve as the commander-in-chief (but will answer to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau) and the federal government will pay the cost. This is what is currently happening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Has the National Guard Helped Before During Crises or Natural Disasters?

The National Guard is no stranger to stepping in to help in times of crises and natural disasters. While the list of moments that the National Guard has been called into action is long and complex, the past few decades are a testament to the force’s nimble nature.

Photo credit DVIDS/Ching Oettel

Florida National Guard members load equipment and prepare for potential missions responding to Hurricane Dorian.

In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard implemented the “largest and swiftest response to a domestic disaster in history,” deploying more than 50,000 troops to areas impacted by the storm. Seven years later, 12,000 guardsmen headed to New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy to help distribute supplies, conduct wellness checks, run patrols, assist the local governments with transportation and more.

Just a few years ago, in 2017 during Hurricane Harvey, thousands of National Guard members headed to Southeast Texas to support the communities recovering from devasting flooding and damage.

“The National Guard is the nation’s first military responder. We are the first to respond and the last to leave,” said Army Master Sgt. Michael Houk in a 2019 nationalguard.mil story.

One of the USO mobile units is loaded with supplies. | Photo credit USO photo

During a large portion of these national disasters – including recent Hurricanes Matthew, Irma, Harvey, Florence, Maria and Dorianthe USO has deployed right alongside brave members of the National Guard to provide them with moments of comfort and way to connect back home during long days away from their loved ones. From bringing our Mobile USO centers to military staging locations so service members can enjoy free Wi-Fi, to handing out USO snack packs or toiletry kits, the USO is here to support service members when they need it the most.

As the National Guard continues to respond to COVID-19 by deploying all across the country, the USO’s commitment remains the same – to always be by their side.

Photo credit DVIDS/Edwin L. Wriston

Members of the West Virginia National Guard assist staff, medical personnel, and first responders of an Eastbrook Center nursing home with COVID-19 testing on April 6, 2020.

How is the National Guard Helping Fight COVID-19?

According to a Military Times story, roughly 19,700 National Guard members are currently activated to help combat COVID-19. These brave service members – which span across all 50 states, D.C. and three territories – will help perform a variety of services including:

Members of the Illinois Air National Guard assemble medical equipment at the McCormick Place Convention Center in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo credit DVIDS/Senior Airman Jay Grabiec

Senior Airman Brooke Tyler assists state partner agencies by manning phone lines at the West Virginia Poison Center, part of the statewide Coronavirus 2019/COVID-19 response efforts. | Photo credit DVIDS/Edwin L. Wriston

  • Assisting with cleaning, like members of the Georgia National Guard, who helped disinfect nursing homes.
  • Running COVID-19 call centers, like members of the Kentucky National Guard, who also provided data entry services, coordinated with testing laboratories and called to check up on quarantined COVID-19 patients on behalf of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.

  • Providing logistics support and transportation, like the Florida National Guard’s 356th Quartermaster Company (an all-female unit called the “War Wagon Company”) did in Miami Gardens.

While communities around the country might start to see more friendly faces in camouflage as the National Guard’s response efforts evolve, the Chairman of the National Guard Bureau, Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, stressed that this large activation of the military in no way indicates that martial law has or will be declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo credit DVIDS/Staff Sergeant Kelly Greenwell

Arizona National Guard personnel prepare boxes of personal protective equipment for transport.

“Let me be clear. There has been no such discussion,” he said, according to an army.mil story.

As Sgt. Jacob Winton, a member of the Tennessee National Guard alluded in a nationalguard.mil story, members of the National Guard are just here to help the nation during its time of need.

“When you join the National Guard, you just want to be able to help your community in times like this,” he said.

Photo credit DVIDS/Army Spc. Samuel D. Keenan

Soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard walk down one of the halls of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

How the USO is helping the National Guard

With the U.S. military – specifically the National Guard – increasing its operational tempo in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO has pivoted to support the thousands of service members called into the fight across the nation.

In New York City, which has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, the USO of Metropolitan New York has stepped in to provide refreshments, hygiene items and fitness equipment to service members in the area. In the past few weeks, the team handed out thousands of beverages, snacks and laundry pods to service members via its mobile unit at Camp Smith and at COVID-19 testing sites and field medical stations.

The Mobile USO team deployed to Florida and Louisiana in support of members of the National Guard. The team is working closely with military leadership and abiding by CDC guidance to continue to deliver classic amenities like free Wi-Fi, televisions, video games, a comfortable chair to sit in and refreshments. The team also supported the USO of Metropolitan New York by dropping off additional supplies all the way from Virginia Beach, Virginia to fuel the continued support of activated service members in New York City. USO’s mobile fleet is postured to deploy across the United States to support National Guardsmen mobilizing as quarantine and medical sites are likely to be established in many states.

Down in Texas, USO El Paso has been working with the local community to provide snacks and personal care items to several hundred members of the National Guard and Reserves who are in a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. The team also provided USO2GO kits (think a box of all the items you need to make your own USO center) for 1,200 members of the National Guard and Reserves. Across the state, USO Dallas-Fort Worth sent members of the National Guard cleaning supplies, refreshments and a slew of other goodies, including a grill to host their own cookouts.

Other USO locations all across the country – from USO Fort Campbell to USO South Carolina – are also stepping up to do what they can to help support members the National Guard; these few examples are only a snapshot at the USO’s efforts to support members of the National Guard.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented national health crisis, the USO’s support of service members and the National Guard is unwavering. As long as they are serving the nation and their communities, we will continue to find a way to serve them.