In the halls of the National Guard Bureau’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, many have been calling 2020 “The Year of the Guard” due to an unprecedented level of high-profile domestic activations for its troops. From daring wildfire rescues to pandemic and civil disturbance response, the Guard has played a central role in protecting Americans at home this year.
“So far in 2020, the National Guard has mobilized more Guard members, for longer, than at any time since World War II,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Robinson, director of public affairs for the Air National Guard, in a statement emailed to Military Times.
And the work continues. Some 56,500 guardsmen “remain on duty in their communities and around the globe,” according a National Guard Bureau media release on December honoring the Guard’s 384th birthday, which takes place Sunday and commemorates the first militia regiments in North America organized in Massachusetts.
But for some guardsmen, the tumultuous months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have left them exhausted and questioning whether they should remain in uniform.
“I am at a hard ‘hell no’ on staying in at this point in time,” said one weary soldier to Military Times. She isn’t the only one. The National Guard is at an inflection point after this year’s historic usage rates and nearly two decades of heavy operational deployments.
Per statistics compiled by NGB, the Guard’s retention rate actually improved slightly for fiscal year 2020. But will reenlistment numbers stay strong as troops — who may be “burnt out,” according to one retention NCO’s observations — approach the end of their contracts in the coming years? And what effect will improving economic conditions have for guardsmen “on the fence” about staying in?
The Guard logged more than 8.4 million days of domestic active duty in 2020 for severe weather relief, wildfire response, COVID-19 mitigation, and civil unrest support. The missions peaked in early June, when at least 120,091 of the Guard’s 450,000 members were on active duty either at home or abroad, according to data released by the National Guard Bureau.
The 8.4 million day figure does not include the 31,110 Army and Air National Guard troops who have mobilized under Title 10 to support the active-duty components of the military this year. Guardsmen mobilized under Title 10 primarily serve on overseas rotations and deployments, although some of the troops have participated in border security and cyber security operations.
Amid this usage, the Army National Guard told Military Times that reenlistments had increased by more than 1,300 compared with FY 2019, and the Air National Guard reported that its retention rate had increased by 1 percentage point for FY 2020 compared with FY 2019.
According to a statement from the Army Guard, these numbers held steady even as the pandemic — and the National Guard’s operational tempo — escalated. “When comparing the [March through September] time period for FY19 and FY20, there is no measurable difference with regards to reenlistment performance,” said the statement. The Air National Guard does not track monthly data, but Air National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Devin Robinson said “increased retention could potentially be due to uncertainty associated with COVID-19.”
How did they do it?
In the case of the Army Guard, National Guard Bureau officials credit this year’s retention success to new programs initiated by the Army Nation Strength Maintenance Division after the force failed to meet its reenlistment goals in FY 2019.
Strength Maintenance Division received 200 new authorizations for Active Guard Reserve (full-time) recruiting and retention personnel that they distributed across the 54 states and territories “with greater emphasis on retention and reducing attrition losses,” according to a statement provided to Military Times.
NGB also launched a retention battalion accreditation program this year under a Strength Management Division that visited and evaluated the retention staff of nine states before the pandemic restricted military travel.
Staff Sgt. Donita Adams, a retention NCO in Maryland whose Army National Guard reenlisted more than 600 troops in FY 2020, suggested that benefits and bonus programs were a major driver of reenlistments during uncertain times.
“Soldiers love the benefits the Guard provides,” said Adams, citing Tricare health insurance, job opportunities, educational benefits, and pensions for retirees. Certain troops reenlisting this year were also eligible for bonuses of up to $20,000, depending on their seniority and the length of their new contract.
Clouds on the horizon?
Reenlistments and separations may be a lagging indicator of the impact of this year’s heavy National Guard usage, though.
Adams explained that in Maryland, retention NCOs first interview exiting soldiers nearly nine months before their contract expires; many other states follow a similar timeline. That means that soldiers who Maryland retention NCOs first contacted on the eve of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic — March 11 — may still not have reached what would’ve been their separation date.
Moreover, Maryland’s FY2020 Army Guard reenlistment goal performance saw a slight dip after the pandemic’s onset.
Although the state “proudly exceeded retention goals by achieving 107 percent reenlistments” overall for FY2020, according to Maryland National Guard spokesman Maj. Kurt Rauschenburg, that number was buoyed by stronger performance earlier in the fiscal year. But those figures dropped off as the year progressed.
Between May and September, the state fell short of its reenlistment goals, securing 207 against a goal of 227. It came up short in four of five months. Rauchenburg explained that the monthly state goals are dictated by the National Guard Bureau “based on predetermined yearly objectives and [the number] of soldiers eligible to extend during the fiscal year.”
The dip in retention performance is small, but is it an early warning sign of a looming crisis?
According to Adams, the Maryland retention NCO, the Guard’s extremely heavy domestic utilization this year left “some soldiers…appear[ing] overwhelmed with making work and home school arrangements for their children.” She also cited “frustration with mission assignments and pay issues” as negatively influencing some soldiers with whom he’d interacted with in recent months.
Restrictions on the availability of military schools — some of which are necessary for guardsmen to gain promotions and higher pay — have also negatively affected reenlistment decisions of soldiers on the fence about remaining in the Guard since the pandemic’s start, Adams explained.
“[Soldiers] want to go to leadership courses and get promoted,” said Adams. “Prior to COVID, we had more flexibility on how many soldiers we could send to school; however, the pandemic halted our ability to arrange for soldiers to attend school[.]” She noted that “informing the soldier that the next possible [school] date is a year or two from now” can pour water on their enthusiasm to reenlist.
According to a recruiting and retention NCO from another state who spoke to Military Times on condition of anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak with media in an official capacity, restrictions on in-person work created by the pandemic also made it more difficult to secure enlistments and reenlistments. The soldier explained that the restrictions “made us less visible to the force,” making it more difficult to connect with soldiers entering their separation windows.
The Guard’s highly visible response to racial justice protests in the wake of what prosecutors say was George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers this summer was a double-edged sword for recruiting and retention, according to the same anonymous soldier. The individual explained that soldiers’ cultural and political views played a more obvious factor in their service decisions after that point.
Regardless of potential obstacles posed by the pandemic and the Guard’s response to civil unrest this summer, Maryland retention NCO Adams remains optimistic about reenlistments as more soldiers involved in the operations see their contracts begin to expire in the coming years. “I am not worried at all,” she said.
The view from the trenches
Two Army National Guard soldiers spoke with Military Times about how this year’s domestic utilization has impacted their plans to continue with — or separate from — the military. Military Times granted the troops anonymity at their request due to their fears of retaliation from their respective chains of command.
Both troops hold the rank of specialist and have served less than six years in the Guard. Adams, the Maryland retention NCO, explained that retaining lower-ranked enlisted troops with less than eight years in service is “very important,” and such soldiers are eligible for the largest sums available through the reenlistment bonus program.
Retention professionals label soldiers with more than eight years in service as “careerists,” because they are more likely to be receptive to appeals towards retirement pensions, which guardsmen can earn after 20 qualifying years in uniform. The biggest push, then, is to lock in the younger soldiers until they reach eight or 10 years in service, after which the pension on the horizon does much of the retention NCO’s work for them.
But will these two soldiers get there? Both expressed frustration with how the increased operational tempo has exacerbated existing issues with their units and leadership, in addition to the hardships common to all guardsmen.
An intelligence analyst in the National Guard of a Southern state spoke with Military Times for a telephone interview as he and one other soldier finished breaking down tents that served as a drive-thru coronavirus testing center in a suburban parking lot. “Gotta get ready for the rain to come through…apologies for the breeze,” he explained.
A former active-duty soldier, he has been activated as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response since early June, according to a set of orders he provided to Military Times. He will remain mobilized on Title 32 orders for continuing support until at least March 31, 2021, he said.
At the time of the interview, the drive-thru testing centers were a new mission for his unit. “We’ve primarily been used as manpower supporting a food bank — anything from packing food, distributing food, acting as laborers, to mild security or traffic control,” he explained.
Some of the soldiers in his unit have been on orders since March 2020, he said. At first, “they managed to get enough volunteers to fill the requirement that they had,” but in the months afterwards his state had to resort to “volun-telling” troops to mobilize in order to meet manpower requirements.
Some of the troops around him have been unable to see their families since activating due to restrictions on travel while on orders, in addition to fears of exposing their families to the virus after working high-risk duties such as testing centers.
While he’s thankful for the paycheck the Guard has provided since a government contracting job offer was rescinded early in the pandemic, the soldier said his experience this year “has pushed me away from wanting to reenlist again in [my state’s] National Guard.” In an email before the interview, he described himself as being “on the fence” about continuing his career with the Guard after his current contract expires in early 2023.
“Stressors in how disorganized this whole thing has been,” have greatly influenced his intentions, he explained. Inconsistent observation of COVID-19 mitigation and constant instability and uncertainty regarding mission assignments and pay “hurt my confidence in at least the state-level leadership,” he said.
“[The state] is having to cut orders in weird ways to get pay done, and sometimes it doesn’t come through correctly,” he explained. “Other times it’s delayed…and it causes [soldiers] stress at home.” Some of his colleagues have had home loan applications fall through as a result.
Pay issues are a common source of frustration throughout the National Guard, and Adams, the Maryland retention NCO, described liaising with pay officials as a common part of the job.
“Overall,” the soldier said, “my experience with my unit has been positive.” But when it comes to his future plans, “If I’m gonna be doing this kind of stuff, I might as well go back to active duty and get the full suite of benefits.”
A combat arms soldier in the Army National Guard of a northern state — on her first enlistment contract, which expires in around three years — spoke with Military Times about how the increased operational tempo associated with the pandemic and an upcoming deployment have influenced her feelings on reenlisting.
The soldier spent nearly three months between April and June on federally funded Title 32 orders as part of her state’s COVID-19 response, leaving her just short of reaching the 90-day threshold required to obtain expanded G.I. Bill and other benefits.
“It felt like they were trying to purposely keep us from getting those benefits,” she said. “It sucked, because…it took me away from my family for almost three months, but you can’t give me the extra two weeks?”
Her orders ended amid a national political controversy over whether the administration would continue the Title 32 authorization — many states curtailed the number of guardsmen on orders in anticipation of losing federal funding. President Donald Trump eventually signed a memorandum extending the authorization beyond the 89-day benefit cliff in June, but it was too late for the soldier’s unit, which had already started its demobilization plan ahead of pre-deployment training requirements.
The length and restrictions associated with the pandemic mission affected her desire to remain in the Guard beyond her first contract, she explained, blaming it for “a lack of control in my own life that was shown by everything that went on with [COVID-19 response].”
She emphasized the strain on her “personal relationships, especially with my fiancé…we both feel like we’re losing any time that we have left together before I have to [deploy].”
Her unit leadership, and “some of the people higher up,” too, seemingly had “a lack of awareness that you have other things going on in your life besides the Guard.
“Sometimes people fall through the cracks when everything gets really fast-paced like this,” the soldier said.
When asked directly about her reenlistment plans, the soldier didn’t hesitate to answer. “It’s gotta be a hard no for me,” she said. “I am at a hard ‘hell no’ on staying in at this point in time.”
She expressed that while she appreciated what staying in uniform had to offer, she thought it wasn’t the right fit for her future.
“I’ve made friends through the Guard. I got my [civilian] job through the Guard…It’s provided me with a lot of opportunities,” she said. “It’s just that it’s a struggle…I didn’t realize how much of a toll it would take on my personal life.”
Her brigade is scheduled to deploy overseas in 2021.
The role of Congress
As troops like the two interviewed by Military Times — who bore the brunt of this year’s historical usage of the National Guard — near the ends of their contracts in the coming years, will they choose to reenlist? While retention personnel like Maryland’s Adams will use the tools at their disposal to retain as many guardsmen as possible, Congress may have a say in the matter.
But a presidential veto of the National Defense Authorization Act could jeopardize the reenlistment bonuses that Adams and other retention NCOs depend upon.
The FY 2021 NDAA includes language that “reauthorizes more than 30…types of bonuses and special pay,” including reenlistment and officer retention bonus funding that will otherwise expire on Dec. 31, according to an official summary of the bill.
President Trump, however, has vowed to veto the defense bill, which could keep the annual measure from becoming law for the first time in nearly 60 years. He opposes language mandating name changes for installations honoring Confederate leaders and wants the bill to roll back liability protection for social media platforms.
Lawmakers have indicated that Trump’s possible veto could be overridden, making the NDAA law without presidential consent. That would extend the bonuses until the end of 2021.
But what if there’s a lapse if an override can’t come until after Dec. 31? Or what if the veto isn’t overridden?
According to Marta Hernandez, the communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, the consequences could be dire for retention personnel.
“The authority to provide new retention bonuses expires on Dec. 31, 2020, unless extended by law,” said Hernandez in an email response to questions from Military Times. “At this time, we are hopeful the NDAA will pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law.”
A DoD spokesperson confirmed Hernandez’s analysis.
“Without a signed FY2021 NDAA (or enactment of another law extending the bonus authorities), the Military Departments may not offer any new bonus agreements after Dec. 31, 2020,” said a DoD spokesperson in an email to Military Times.
Hernandez also explained that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., “has prepared a ‘skinny’ NDAA that would make sure the most important functions of the NDAA were covered — including special pay and bonuses — but given the politics and current timeline, it would likely not be possible to enact such legislation by the deadline.”
This means that in the event that Congress is unable to enact even a “skinny” NDAA that prioritizes issues like pay and key readiness concerns as opposed to the sweeping nature of the full NDAA, retention NCOs will temporarily lose the ability to give reenlistment bonuses to troops.
It is hard to predict how long a bonus interruption would last or how exactly that would affect reenlistment numbers, though defense officials projected confidence about their retention prospects. “We are confident [the services] will take appropriate actions to retain service members,” said the DoD spokesperson.
Congress may still add a new benefit for troops who participated in the COVID-19 response, too.
Earlier in the current Congress, which adjourns on Jan. 3, a bipartisan group of legislators including U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., among others, introduced legislation that would credit National Guard Title 32 service days towards Veterans Affairs home loan eligibility. Currently, guardsmen are only eligible for the loan after six years of service or 90 consecutive days of Title 10 orders, excluding active duty for training periods such as basic training.
While the House version of the bill made it through its initial markup in the House Veterans Affairs committee in July, the HVAC’s Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity is yet to take up the measure. The Senate version of the legislation has not yet been reviewed by its Veterans Affairs committee.
The National Guard Association of the United States “strongly endorses” the legislation, which is also supported by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“Bost is still working to get the [National Guard VA loan] bill across the finish line this year,” said Alex Naughton, Bost’s spokeswoman, to Military Times via email. “But if that doesn’t happen, he will definitely continue pushing for it next year as ranking member [of HVAC].”
Should the measure become law, it could potentially assist in the retention of weary National Guard troops, thousands of whom remain on Title 32 orders combating the pandemic after Trump extended the authorization through March 31, 2021. But will it be enough?
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.