Members of the Army and Air National Guard have taken lead roles in the nation’s war against the coronavirus pandemic and that battle doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, the head of the National Guard Bureau said Thursday.
Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said it has been a “crazy year” for the Guard, and noted it’s only halfway finished. More than 100,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized to help coordinate COVID-19 struggle, running food banks, evacuating nursing homes and delivering personal protective equipment.
“In some cases they were even manufacturing [personal protective equipment],” he said Thursday during an online briefing sponsored by the Brookings Institution. “They can do any task our nation needs them to do.”
He said National Guard troops have proven to be an “indispensable force,” at a time when U.S. infection rates have surged again to new highs in recent weeks.
“There’s no sign of operational tempo reduction in our future as we look in the relatively near term,” said Gen. Lengyel, who as head of the National Guard Bureau is also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Much of the conversation Thursday touched on the changing role of the National Guard from the early image of the part-time “weekend warrior” to a force that now routinely stands alongside active-duty troops.
“We have become an operational force with continuous, sustained rotations — that’s a good thing,” Gen. Lengyel said.
He said he would like to see National Guard units assigned to more rotational, planned missions — such as to Europe or Korea. Their soldiers and airmen would be able to better balance their military and civilian lives if that was the case.
The Guard also found itself being pulled into fresh political controversy this year, when thousands of Guard personnel were dispatched to American cities to back up police facing demonstrations and sometimes violence in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“Civil unrest is our most difficult mission. We don’t like doing it,” Gen. Lengyel said. “It’s a difficult situation for our men and women to be in.”
He did say the pressure of those deployments appears to be easing.
Having Guard and military personnel “being out there in law enforcement situations is not optimum. We should do as little of it as we can,” Gen. Lengyel said. “But, when they need us, we can and we will come.”
The Department of Defense introduced a new military branch — the U.S. Space Force — during Gen. Lengyel’s tenure at the Pentagon. He would like to see a National Guard component to the fledgling service.
“We’ve been in the space mission for 25 years. We are mirrors of our parent service and that has got to remain the same as part of the space force,” he said.
Gen. Lengyel who is winding up a military career of more than 30 years, said he thought he’d spend the last year building new relationships with international partners. Instead, he has been forced to help guide his troops through a worldwide health pandemic and searing domestic civil unrest.
“All that was put on hold because our nation was paralyzed,” he said. “We’re not done yet and we won’t be done until there’s a vaccine that changes things.”
The National Guard, Gen. Lengyel said, is the Swiss army knife of the U.S. military.
“We’re always ready and we’re always there,” he said.