Head Of National Guard Says Tens Of Thousands Could Be Called Up

Mar 19, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 8:09 am

Tens of thousands of guardsmen could be called up to help state efforts to combat the coronavirus in the coming weeks and months, the head of the National Guard Bureau said.

"This could quickly blossom," Gen. Joseph Lengyel told Pentagon reporters Thursday.

At the moment, just over 2,000 members of the National Guard are assisting governors in 27 states, doing things such as helping with testing and transportation. Lengyel said that number could double by this weekend.

There are some 450,000 Guardsmen in the Air Guard and National Guard.

Lengyel said he doesn't see the need to federalize the guard, meaning it would come under control of the president. He said it's more efficient to leave it under state control.

On Thursday, President Trump appeared to agree. At a meeting with a group of governors, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia told Trump to "leave the directives for the National Guard with the governors."

"That's done. I like it," Trump responded.

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We're going to talk now about what the U.S. military can or should do to help the country fight the coronavirus. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the department is providing millions of protective masks and 2,000 respirators. Military hospital ships are getting ready to sail, and field hospitals are on standby. We've got NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with us this morning.

Hi, Tom.


MARTIN: So a lot of what's being done now is through the National Guard - right? - since they essentially work for the governors, and they're already living in these communities.

BOWMAN: Yeah, that's right. The head of the National Guard, General Joseph Lengyel, said there are now more than 2,000 guard members helping in 27 states. And, Rachel, he said that 2,000 number will double by the weekend. And he expected tens of thousands of guardsmen to be deployed in the coming weeks and months.

Now, General Lengyel also said he doesn't see the need to federalize the guard - meaning it would come under control of the president. He says the governors have a better sense of how the Guard should be used. So at this point, it's up to each individual state. And one key thing to remember is the federal government - if they assume control of the guard, it would be forbidden to engage in domestic law enforcement.

MARTIN: What is the guard doing right now? And what could they be doing?

BOWMAN: Well, they're doing everything from providing transportation to assisting in testing to medical assistance to helping with planning for the governors. Now, they could also help with police and law enforcement as well. And members of the Tennessee Guard helped in a different way. They recently flew a half-million swabs for coronavirus testing from Italy to Memphis, Tenn., and then they'll be distributed by FedEx. And these swabs will be used in testing, and then the swabs will be sent to labs.

So you could see guard members helping out in that effort - maybe moving these tests from where they were initiated to the labs. Now, we were told yesterday by senior Pentagon health officers that the 15 Pentagon labs could assist in analyzing those swabs. They said that they could do tens of thousands each day - so a significant number.

MARTIN: Tom, what about these huge hospital ships that the military has? We've heard reports that they are going to be deployed in hot zones. They take a long time to move, though, don't they?

BOWMAN: You know, they do. The hospital ship Mercy on the West Coast is expected to get underway as early as Monday. No official word yet where it's going. One official told me Seattle, but California wants the hospital ship, too. And the hospital ship Comfort on the East Coast - it will take weeks to get going because of maintenance and other issues. That ship will head to New York. And each ship, Rachel, has 1,000 beds. And - but they'll not be dealing with coronavirus but taking the pressure off local hospitals by, you know, handling other medical needs.

MARTIN: Right. And, Tom, you're working out of the Pentagon. There are still thousands of people working there, right? I mean...

BOWMAN: Yeah, and almost...

MARTIN: ...Are they all keeping 6 feet away from each other?

BOWMAN: Well, the reporters are keeping six feet away. And everyone around the building - you know, they're doing elbow-to-elbow greetings. And, you know, people are trying to keep their distance when they're walking the hallways. And interestingly, Defense Secretary Esper said he talked with his deputy who works right down the hall by phone rather than going to - having - you know, sitting close to each other. And there are also people with no-touch thermometers testing people around the Pentagon intermittently.

MARTIN: So testing is happening.

BOWMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But kind of, you know, sporadically, you know.


BOWMAN: As people go into the offices, they're testing. And I'm told if you test with above-average temperature, you know, you're told to go home. And it's happened on a number of occasions.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.