Pandemic shines light on question: Have we let our Guard down in Florida?

·6 min read

The Florida National Guard: The country's oldest organized state militia — and maybe its most overworked.

A bipartisan push from state Sen. Tom Wright, a New Smyrna Beach Republican, and state Rep. Dan Daley, a Sunrise Democrat, asks Congress and the National Guard Bureau to increase the number of troops in the state's National Guard.

In the past year and a half, the men and women who serve part-time in the Guard have cleaned up after hurricanes, set up testing sites and field hospitals during the COVID pandemic, patrolled during protests, supplemented U.S. military forces in Africa, and aided Texas authorities along the border with Mexico.

The multiple deployments were a radical departure from the Guard tradition of monthly weekend drills, annual two weeks of training, and maybe another week or two of hurricane response. Just two weeks ago, nearly 500 troops returned home to their families after a year's deployment.

For much of the past 12 months, the Florida Guard had more than 3,000 troops — a quarter of its force — deployed on COVID-related tasks and other missions.

“We're beating up on the same people over and over: Great Americans who have volunteered to be a part of our force,” said Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, the Adjutant General of Florida.

Eifert is talking to state legislators, members of Congress, reporters and just about anyone who will listen about the danger of calling the same men and women away from their families and jobs and churning them through multiple state and national assignments.

Eifert commands a force of 12,000. And while Massachusetts claims to have been the first colony to establish a Guard in 1636, the Florida National Guard dates to 1565 and the Spanish occupation of present-day St. Augustine.

There are now 54 guard units, one for each state and territory, partly funded through a $7.6 billion share of the U.S. Army budget.

They are under joint federal and state control, reporting both to their respective governors and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, himself a retired Army four-star general.

The National Guard is the “home guard” in a three-legged national defense strategy that also includes active military and reserves. While the Guard's main focus is on in-state emergencies, it also assists the U.S. armed forces, an obligation that has increased tenfold since the 9/11 attack, according to Eifert.

The National Guard, stationed throughout Tallahassee hands out ice, water, and meals ready to eat on Oct. 13, 2018, three days after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle.
The National Guard, stationed throughout Tallahassee hands out ice, water, and meals ready to eat on Oct. 13, 2018, three days after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle.

The National Guard around Florida:

Florida has 2nd smallest Guard unit

But disaster-prone Florida — which has the fifth most declared state of emergencies in the last 70 years and the third most populated — also has the second smallest unit: Just 12,000 troops to assist 22 million residents.

“My biggest fear the past year is we have a category 5 (hurricane) in a major metropolitan area … and we would not be able to respond with the assistance we’ve identified is required for every hurricane,” Eifert said.

He explained an increase in the Guard's force would come with minimal expense to the state since the Army pays and supplies the troops.

An Air National Guardsman directs people where to fill out paper work to receive a COVID vaccination in Ocala this April. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]
An Air National Guardsman directs people where to fill out paper work to receive a COVID vaccination in Ocala this April. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]

The current state budget appropriates $35.9 million to the Guard's $471.2 million operating budget. Eifert said there may be some additional state cost to maintain operating centers with an expanded force.

Troop allotment to each state and territory of the 440,000 guard force authorized by Congress is set by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. The bureau completed a force structure rebalance exercise in February, reallocating troops from states that wanted a smaller force.

But to Eifert's disappointment, not one additional soldier was allocated for Florida or other large and disaster-prone states like California and Texas.

“That’s insane," said Daley, the state lawmaker. "What this comes down to is the safety and security of our state and of our nation.”

In addition to filing what are called "memorials," expressions of legislative consensus to urge Congress to increase the number of guard positions available to Florida, Daley and Wright also are circulating letters for members to sign to be sent to Congress and Defense Secretary Austin.

In St. Marks, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 the Florida National Guard arrives to assist the community after Hurricane Michael tears through the panhandle.
In St. Marks, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 the Florida National Guard arrives to assist the community after Hurricane Michael tears through the panhandle.

Eifert says he also has a PowerPoint presentation that mathematically explains Florida's problem of too few troops. The highlight is a multi-colored graph with a line depicting 70 years of population growth, diverging from a flat line of troop strength to form a 45-degree angle with the wide baseline labeled “risk gap.”

“What I am saying is, the governor does not have the force structure to be able to support 22 million citizens,” Eifert said.

"Protecting our citizens": Florida National Guard Appreciation Day held at Florida Capitol

Pandemic complicated force issue for National Guard

When Florida was first allocated 12,000 troops in 1958, the citizen-to-guard ratio was 605 residents for every guard. Today it is 1,750 residents for every guardsperson. An increase in the Florida Guard's force would come with minimal state expense since it's a federal program.

Florida has the same number of guards as Alabama, a state with a fifth of Florida’s population and an even smaller fraction of coastline exposed to hurricanes. Nearly 80% of Florida’s population lives within 30 miles of the shoreline.

Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the adjutant general of Florida, and Command Sgt. Maj. David Lanham, the senior enlisted leader for the Florida National Guard, salute in front of a wreath placed during a ceremony recognizing the 20 anniversary of 9/11 and military members who died in the war on terrorism.
Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the adjutant general of Florida, and Command Sgt. Maj. David Lanham, the senior enlisted leader for the Florida National Guard, salute in front of a wreath placed during a ceremony recognizing the 20 anniversary of 9/11 and military members who died in the war on terrorism.

“Granted, we had a once-in-a-century pandemic, but that should only shine a brighter light on this issue,” said Daley, who has sat through Eifert’s presentation.

COVID complicates Eifert's dilemma. It has weakened Guard strength nationally, he explains. The Guard units have the military equivalence of mutual aid compacts with each other.

More than 700 soldiers from 22 states deployed to Florida during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Another 148 troops from eight states arrived in 2018 to help after Hurricane Michael in 2018.

But Guard units nationwide have been tasked with COVID-related duties. If Florida were to make a mutual aid request, Eifert fears it is unlikely anyone will answer.

“What we’ve learned the past few months is if we need someone from another state to come help us there is no guarantee that that's going to happen. Mutual aid is a voluntary agreement, not a contract,” Eifert said.

Wright agrees with Eifert that Florida has to get Congress to authorize the Guard Bureau to give Florida more troops. Otherwise, “we could end up in dire straits, finding ourselves wishing we had done it before,” he said.

Members of the Florida National Guard help provide residents with food and water at a distribution site in Brownsville on Saturday. Just under 50% of residents in Escambia are still without power following Hurricane Sally's landfall on Wednesday.
Members of the Florida National Guard help provide residents with food and water at a distribution site in Brownsville on Saturday. Just under 50% of residents in Escambia are still without power following Hurricane Sally's landfall on Wednesday.

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A force in burnout?

The general's ultimate fear is that an overworked force will burn out. Troops will leave to tend to families and careers and the Guard will not be able to respond when the governor calls.

He sees two solutions: Boost Florida's citizen-to-guard ratio to what it was in 1958 when the 12,000 allotment was set, nearly tripling the force. Or provide Florida the national citizens-to-guard ratio, which would more than double troop strength to 26,000.

“I don’t want to take away from anyone else to make Florida bigger," Eifert said. "Just give us the national average.”

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: COVID spotlights overworked, understaffed Florida National Guard

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