The crisis swept in fast, at the speed of an onrushing hurricane — because it was a hurricane.
Peaking at category 5, Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast of the U.S in August 2005. As chief of the National Guard Bureau, my job was supporting governors with an intensity equal to the storm. That is what 50,000 National Guard personnel did in 2005. Fifteen years later, that is what 46,000 National Guard personnel are doing to battle COVID-19.
Big lessons were learned from Katrina. We are using them now, but others we need to learn again. One was in the Oval Office. When President Bush asked about federalizing the National Guard under Title 10, a consensus emerged: Leave mobilization to governors under Title 32. This allowed flexibility, as governors directed action under Title 32, federal government paid. The decision worked then and is working now.
Other lessons were also learned — big lessons. We forget them at our peril. One is that National Guard personnel are cut from different cloth. They are often first to volunteer, first to the frontlines and last to receive benefits or recognition for what they are doing.
In Katrina’s aftermath, the National Guard, active military services, federal, state and local civilian authorities worked together — if not seamlessly, systematically and selflessly — to preserve order, assure public health and safety, rescue those in need and begin a long, difficult process of recovery.
In the battle against COVID-19, National Guard volunteers are again working hand-in-glove — literally — with state and local authorities across the nation, from coast to coast, north to south and in U.S. territories. This crisis is different. It affects more states, is more insidious and hidden to the eye until it strikes. It can bring down Guard members — and their families. That said, none of this has deterred the Guard.
Operationally, 80 percent of those who stepped up are on Title 32 orders, state direction but federally paid. Another 6,600-plus are on “state activated duty.” They are literally on the frontlines, distributing food to hundreds of thousands in hard-hit “hot spots,” in hospitals backing-up medical staff, disinfecting nursing homes, transporting the dead from New York, manning operations centers and conducting countless high-risk missions every day.
One issue requires immediate attention: Many of these brave men and women are without full medical coverage. If their initial orders were 30 days or less, they get no TRICARE — or defense medical coverage. If they are on “state activity duty,” they get no federal coverage. When they complete their service, they get no transitional medical coverage. That is not right.
Take the last issue as an example of what we should be doing — and are not. When members of the Guard deploy overseas and return, they have six months transitional medical coverage. By contrast, after throwing themselves into the teeth of America’s worst health crisis in a century, putting their families also at risk of COVID-19, they have no transitional medical coverage.
These “frontline” National Guard volunteers are hit twice — some missing medical coverage as they serve, all missing transitional coverage when they roll off orders. We can do better. We must do better by these patriots.
In short, men and women of the National Guard — like nurses and doctors — are on the frontlines. They are there by choice. They are other-regarding people, signed up to do what they are doing and have no regrets. In Katrina’s aftermath, we had casualties. We have them now.
That is why we must look after these courageous young Americans. Congress and others involved should be asking: What can we do to help all in uniform — medical and National Guard — who are helping us get through this with their unique experience, training, can-do and never-quit attitude.
The highest honor of my life was leading selfless patriots of the National Guard. They do not seek attention and seldom get it. They do not ask what their country should do for them, but what they can do for their countrymen. They do not expect special treatment, look for headlines or handouts — they measure their self-worth by their labor, long hours and love of country.
That is why, from Katrina to COVID-19, we should be looking after those who are looking after us. They need full medical coverage now, serving and in transition off orders — no exceptions. Their families need this coverage, too. That is a small ask for those who ask nothing.
Yes, we will have “lessons learned” and “future gap analysis” work to do after this crisis, just like Katrina. But at this moment, we have one urgent mission: Get the country through it.
If there were ever a time to protect men and women of the Guard and their families, it is now.
Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum was chief of the National Guard Bureau from 2003 to 2008 and the deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command from 2008 to 2010.