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National Guard force surpasses Hurricane Katrina response

Master Sgt. Acie Matthews of the Minnesota National Guard engaged with protesters to show solidarity and request they comply with the state curfew at the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul June 1, 2020.

Master Sgt. Acie Matthews of the Minnesota National Guard engaged with protesters to show solidarity and request they comply with the state curfew at the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul June 1, 2020.

ARLINGTON, Va. -- About 74,000 National Guard members were on duty Wednesday performing domestic response missions in support of their governors. The number surpasses the more than 51,000 Guard members activated after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, which was the Guard’s largest previous domestic response in recent years.

Guard members are filling a variety of roles, including approximately 39,400 taking part in COVID-19 response efforts and 30,000 on duty in 31 states and Washington, D.C., in response to civil unrest.

“The hardest mission we do is responding in times of civil unrest,” said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “As a uniformed member of America’s military, it breaks my heart to see the country I love in such pain.”

Guard members began to be called out to respond to civil unrest last week and over the weekend as protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis turned violent in a number of cities.

“Typically, that request only comes upon the exhaustion of local resources,” said Army Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard.

Minnesota Guard members came on duty Thursday. They have primarily provided security for fire department and medical crews responding to emergency calls, staffed traffic control points and maintained security at hospitals and points of critical infrastructure, said Jensen.

“Our primary purpose, as it relates to these events, is to allow our local law enforcement professionals to do their jobs,” he said. “We do that by relieving them of items like infrastructure security.”

That allows local authorities greater flexibility to respond, said Jensen.

“That means a police officer doesn’t have to stand in the hospital,” he said. “They’re allowed to go out and work as part of their department in law enforcement tasks.”

Colorado National Guard members, who were called to duty Friday in response to civil unrest, have been performing similar mission sets in Denver.

“They were deployed downtown on Saturday night,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Loh, adjutant general of the Colorado Guard. “Their main job was to protect critical infrastructure, and they were inside a number of buildings in and around the area where looters and protesters had been violent the night before.”

Similarly, Georgia National Guard members were on duty in Atlanta over the weekend when protests turned violent.

“We put a presence in those areas to deter violence and [Saturday] night was a much more peaceful night in Atlanta and in Fulton County,” said Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden, adjutant general of the Georgia Guard.

Those efforts come as Guard members remain on duty in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia responding to COVID-19.

Memorial Day weekend saw Minnesota Guard members running a number of community-based COVID-19 testing sites, including two in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“Last weekend I was performing a medical, or humanitarian mission almost, and now I’m in the same cities performing a completely different mission,” said Jensen. “I’m very proud of our efforts in both of those cases and it shows the unbelievable flexibility, adaptability and skills and professionalism and dedication of our [Guard members].”

But, Jensen added, COVID-19 may come into play as Guard members respond to civil unrest.

“We have done everything we can to social distance,” he said, adding that maintaining a 6-foot distance isn’t always possible.

“For example, civil disturbance type events [are] in very close quarters,” said Jensen. “My Soldiers form a line to protect critical infrastructure; they are standing shoulder to shoulder.”

Guard members are still taking precautions against COVID-19, he added, to keep themselves and the public safe.

“We have issued masks and we continue to issue masks to our Soldiers and Airmen, but we know we are taking a risk here,” Jensen said. “But we have a mission that our community and our state are counting on us to perform.”

And, Jensen noted, Guard members are part of the community.

“We come from these communities and we serve in the communities we come from,” he said.

Guard members also continue to serve in a variety of other domestic missions, including about 2,450 Soldiers and Airmen along the Southwest border and more than 2,200 Guard members serving in other capacities allowing for steady-state operations.

“It is very common for our National Guard to be operating in this wide spectrum of operations,” said Jensen.

In addition, more than 28,000 Guard members are deployed overseas, said Guard officials.

“I have Special Forces [Soldiers] in Afghanistan and I have other forces throughout the Middle East, and then I have aviation [units] in Kosovo,” said Loh.

And as hurricane season begins, Guard Soldiers and Airmen remain ready to respond, said Lengyel.

“We’re here to help and assist local authorities,” he said, adding that’s one of the Guard’s core missions in serving the community.

“Our troops are trained to protect life, preserve property and ensure people’s right to peacefully demonstrate,” he said. “The National Guard has been part of our nation’s fabric since 1636, and we will all get through this time of great challenges together.”

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