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National Guard Troops Face 2020's Unprecedented Challenges

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here at home, the National Guard is often called in to help when there are emergencies. And this year, there have been many. And that's meant they've been busier than ever. And it's taking its toll. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has more.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Talk about bad timing. Louisiana Adjutant General Keith Waddell took command of the Louisiana National Guard in January 2020.

KEITH WADDELL: You know, the first day I was on the job, we had a tornado warning. And the second day I was on the job, we had a tornado in north Louisiana. And it really hasn't stopped since (laughter).

MORRIS: All year, guard troops around the country have been running to help with hurricanes, wildfires, floods, civil unrest and, of course, the pandemic. In fact, more National Guard troops were activated this year than at any time since World War II.

JOE TROVATO: 2020 has been an absolutely unprecedented and incredible year for the Wisconsin National Guard.

MORRIS: Captain Joe Trovato says the pandemic response there started in March when COVID-exposed cruise ship passengers from Wisconsin needed a ride home.

TROVATO: The guard is actually the ones who physically drove them from the airport where they landed back to their homes. And that was our initial mission.

MORRIS: And that was just the beginning. The Wisconsin Guard helped to set up an auxiliary hospital, jumped into staff call centers and haul supplies. It's conducted nearly 1 million COVID tests. Across the country, guard troops have administered more than 9 million tests, packaged, served or delivered a staggering 584 million meals, plus hundreds of millions of protective masks, gloves and gowns. More than 47,000 National Guard troops were actively fighting the pandemic this spring, less than half that many are now.

MICHAEL VENERDI: So this is not our high point.

MORRIS: Colonel Michael Venerdi, director of joint staff for the Kansas National Guard, says state and local agencies have now ramped up to take over some of the testing, food distribution and other things that guard troops took on initially.

VENERDI: That's a good example of communities stepping up and finding permanent solutions as opposed to the temporary solution that, really, our soldiers and airmen can provide.

MORRIS: And while hospitals are filling up with COVID patients in many parts of the country, the Guard's ability to help with that crisis is limited. Brigadier General Nick Ducich with the National Guard Bureau in Washington says the Guard's citizen soldier doctors and nurses are already in the trenches fighting the pandemic.

NICK DUCICH: The vast majority of our medical professionals, actually, currently serve in the hospitals and medical care facilities existing. So we'd only compound the problem if we were to pull them out and utilize them in a different way.

MORRIS: And there's another factor limiting guard activity. Federal funding for the pandemic mission and the presidential memorandum authorizing it expire at the end of the month. Meanwhile, a major new challenge is right around the corner. Trina Sheets heads the National Emergency Management Association and says many state emergency managers are counting on the Guard to help with vaccinations.

TRINA SHEETS: And there is a very clear role for the National Guard to play. In the United States, we've never had to immunize the number of people at one time and within such a short period of time as we will have to do for COVID-19.

MORRIS: So add that to the to-do list along with whatever else foreign adversaries, the pandemic and Mother Nature can throw at the National Guard.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.