Where would many Americans be this year without their National Guard? Certainly in even more dire straits. Guard soldiers and airmen have helped feed millions nationwide who suddenly found themselves out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
They’ve also tested hundreds of thousands for the virus, disinfected many nursing homes, and kept hospitals nationwide supplied with personal protective equipment. Guardsmen also helped restore a measure of order in American cities when many protests spiraled out of control.
At one point in early June, nearly 100,000 Guard soldiers and airmen were on duty across every state, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. That’s almost double the number that responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Most Americans know this. The Guard’s response to these trying times has been one of the few good news stories lately. Citizen-soldiers and airmen came out to help when other citizens heeded the advice to stay in.
Many may not know that the Guard also continued to provide thousands of soldiers and airmen to missions overseas in places including Afghanistan, Kuwait and Syria. The days of the Guard as strictly a strategic reserve are history. In any future fight, the Guard will be among the first in.
What most probably don’t know is that while this force has become indispensable, it struggles with something as essential as medical coverage. Our nation offers health care to active-component troops, but not routinely to members of the National Guard unless they are serving overseas.
A provision in law does provide coverage to Guardsmen mobilized for duty on U.S. soil, but only if they are on federal orders in increments of more than 30 days. This gave peace of mind to some Guardsmen on the front lines of the worst public health crisis in more than a century. But many others didn’t qualify. They were either in a different status or did not meet a rather arbitrary time requirement.
And none of them are covered after they leave COVID-19 duty. Our nation provides Guardsmen with six months of transitional coverage after an overseas mission to cover any lingering effects, but not one day after helping fight what has turned out to be a very tricky virus at home.
I have one word for this:
But such coverage is not required by law, so the Pentagon won’t provide it.
Congress recognizes the need to fix this. There are bills in both the House and Senate to provide Guardsmen with six months of transitional healthcare after a domestic mission. The legislation will likely pass, but not soon enough to help those now heading back to their families.
A simple solution would be to provide Guard soldiers and airmen with no-cost medical coverage for the duration of their service in uniform, and not just during some missions. Increased medical readiness and better recruiting and retention would likely more than cover the costs.
Unfortunately, Guardsman have grown accustomed to something less than the full support of our nation. Do you think Army and Air National Guard units deploy overseas, often to harm’s way, with the best equipment our nation has to officer? Some do, but many do not.
The 278th Armed Cavalry Regiment from Tennessee recently spent time in Poland as a tripwire, the first line of deterrence and defense against Russian adventurism. They did so using old, analog tanks that are no longer advanced enough for active-component Army units.
This example is hardly an exception. Most Air National Guard pilots are younger than the planes they fly. The same goes for many Army National Guard aviators and their helicopters. And ditto for many of the Guardsmen who roll up to a disaster scene in a Humvee. Good thing that Guard mechanics are so good. They have to be to keep this old equipment in the fight.
It’s time for our nation to treat the National Guard as the go-to force that it has become and the nation requires. Active-component members have front-line equipment and benefits. Guard soldiers and airmen deserve and need the same.
If not now, when? Guardsmen have proven they have America’s back. It’s time for all of us to have theirs.
Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, USA (Ret.) is President of the National Guard Association of the United States in Washington, D.C.