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Driving buses, giving vaccines, patrolling the border: Is the National Guard asked to do too much?

A member of the National Guard drives a school bus van in Chelsea, Mass. in October. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker activated the Guard to address a shortage of drivers as the school year began.
A member of the National Guard drives a school bus van in Chelsea, Mass. in October. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker activated the Guard to address a shortage of drivers as the school year began.

The National Guard is being tasked with a growing number of missions, and critics argue that heavy deployments are straining the force.

On a recent weekday in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Jaime Carillo and his son waited on their front porch for the National Guard.

Carillo's son relies on a van service to take him to school. When a driver shortage crippled the school district’s transportation system, the vans stopped coming.

“I had to take him to school for three weeks because the school bus didn’t go by,” Carillo said. “They told me there were problems, that there weren’t enough drivers. First the bus had to drop off one group of kids, then pick up another.”

That changed when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called up the National Guard to fill in. For a time, Carillo’s son was greeted by a uniformed military member behind the wheel.

“I’m happy they brought in the [National Guard] drivers," Carillo told WBUR reporter Carrie Jung."They seem more prepared, but that’s just me.”

Anthony Soto, superintendent of nearby Holyoke, Mass. Public Schools, experienced the same problem in his district. When he learned that the Guard was being considered as a possible short-term solution, he was taken aback.

“I was very surprised,” Soto said. “But then, my next reaction was like, ‘Wow, the state is really paying attention to the issues that school districts are facing, and they're thinking outside the box and jumping in to help.”

The bus driver deployment is just one example of how the National Guard’s role has expanded. Since last year, National Guard troops have been deployed repeatedly — not only by the President, but also by governors — who called them up to assist with pandemic relief, respond to last summer’s protests, protect the U.S. Capitol, and patrol the southern border. That’s all while balancing wildfires, hurricanes, and duties overseas.

Some state Guard leaders say troops enjoy the domestic missions because they can directly serve their neighbors. But they argue that back-to-back mobilizations aren’t sustainable.

“When you think about that impact on families and employers, it's pretty significant,” said Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard. “Then you add in the challenges of being in the middle of a pandemic, when there's so much uncertainty and moms and dads are pulled away from kids and families.”

Eifert said Florida needs more Guard troops so it can rotate them and relieve the strain. His counterparts in Texas and California are making similar arguments.

Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California National Guard, said his troops have been beleaguered by short notice domestic deployments, especially during this year’s intense wildfire season. Baldwin has lobbied for more troops and has criticized how the federal government divides resources among the states and territories.

More than 50 members of Congress are asking the Defense Department to allocate more National Guard troops to bigger states— or make the Guard larger across the board.

“I think it's so important that we increase the bottom line — that we increase the overall manpower and health of the Guard to make sure more than those that have been doing the heavy lifting get their batteries recharged,” said Texas Republican Tony Gonzales.

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The Defense Department decides how to distribute National Guard troops based on budgets passed by Congress. Changes in troop numbers from year to year are usually small because officials want to make sure states can sustain their numbers through recruiting.

Retired Army colonel Mike Linick once managed that process for the Army and now works as a defense analyst for the RAND Corporation. He said he’s not hearing much discussion within Pentagon circles about increasing the size of the Guard for domestic missions. He guesses that’s partly because the Guard’s main purpose is national defense — not responding to governors' requests for state needs.

“I do think that there's an active debate amongst a lot of stakeholders about whether or not there are alternatives available to the governor that might be better suited for a long term shift in those kinds of patterns, rather than repeated requirements being placed on the National Guard,” Linick said.

Linick argues the conversation should be more about how governors use their Guards, not how many Guard troops they have to use. He worries that the Guard's ever-expanding list of duties will drive people away from serving.

“What we've observed in the past is that the more often you call on reserve units to be used, the more pressures you have on retention," he said, "because the soldiers themselves often say this isn't really what I signed up for. If I wanted to be deployed this much or employed this much, I would have joined the regular Army.”

According to two leaders within the Adjutants General Association of the United States, that scenario has not yet come into play. Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Adjutant General of Nebraska, and Army Maj. Gen. John Harris Jr., Adjutant General for Ohio, wrote in a paper that “best metric to assess strain on the force is retention,” and the Army National Guard is “experiencing the highest retention rates of its existence and has consistently outperformed Army expectations.”

State leaders say they’ll keep lobbying Congress and the Pentagon to help fund the Guard’s growing responsibilities. But Linick said it's unlikely the Department of Defense will put a lot more money into the Guard relative to the Pentagon's other funding demands, like active duty troops and equipment.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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