Early in 2020, Sgt. Joseph Huling, 25, figured the Florida National Guard might be called to help in some way with the emerging coronavirus.
He eventually served on a COVID-19 mission for a month setting up a testing site in Miami-Dade County, went back to drills, deployed to Washington for about 10 days to respond to civil unrest and went back last month for another 10 days to help with security for the presidential inauguration.
“It’s been quite an adventure, being deployed and going back home to being deployed, going back home,” he said.
In a regular year, members of the Florida National Guard can expect to attend scheduled monthly weekend drills, a two or three week annual training and perhaps a deployment of a couple weeks in response to a hurricane.
Back in 2019, 4,866 guardsmen total were activated for about nine days in response to Hurricane Dorian, for instance.
But 2020 has required an exceptional commitment by the Florida Guard. Since March, 800 to 3,000 Florida guardsmen have been on duty every day in support of COVID-19 operations. An additional 407 servicemembers responded to Hurricane Sally around Pensacola in September. Another 550 went to Washington, D.C. in June to respond to civil unrest. And inauguration-related security duty sent 650 guardsmen back to Washington, and another 100 to Tallahassee to guard the state capitol.
“It’s been a very interesting, unprecedented year really, operationally, and I’m so proud of our soldiers and airmen as they’ve stepped up to respond to the nation’s call,” said Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, adjutant general of the Florida National Guard. As the governor’s proposed state budget addresses needed repairs and maintenance to armories and training facilities, Eifert is also advocating at the federal level for more staffing.
The past year has tested the Florida Guard with more unexpected and longer-running missions than in prior years. It presented challenges for members who have full-time jobs or are full-time students, but guardsmen interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said it’s what they signed up for.
“You join the Guard for a lot of different reasons, but one underlying truth that you can rely on is that everyone believes in civil service, and they’re here in this organization to serve,” Huling said, who lives in Starke near Gainesville.
With eight years in the military — five on active duty — and a job as a technician repairing Army equipment at the Guard’s Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Starke, balancing family life and work with the deployments went relatively smoothly for Huling.
Spc. Austin Doss, 20, of Tampa is a student at Hillsborough Community College. He took his laptop to Washington, D.C., to get some homework done between security duties for the presidential inauguration. He worked it out with his Guard superiors and teachers, with some catch-up work waiting for him on his return.
“It was difficult at times, trying to balance things,” he said.
For Spc. John Allyn, 24, of Apollo Beach, the short notice of his missions made things tricky with his job at Advanced Airfoil Components. He’s worked there for two years, making parts that go inside gas turbine engines for power plants.
“Normally‚ we have a set schedule, where I know when I’m going to be gone. I know what days I need to call in for and what days I’m not going to be at work,” he said. “This time around, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m leaving.’ I don’t know when I’m going to come back, but I’ll keep them up to date.”
The company was able to accommodate him, he said.
Many guardsmen lost jobs or faced financial hardships last year tied to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact, Eifert said, so being on orders helped them support themselves and their families. They get additional pay for special call-ups.
“And we’re hoping that they recognize that this is a once-in-a-100-year event, and it’s not going to be something they’re going to be expected to do year in and year out,’ he added. “So hopefully, that will allow them to recognize the value, and we’ll continue to retain them for future enlistments.”
Yet Eifert also notes that there’s a point when growing the Guard’s manpower becomes a priority.
“It’s kind of driven home for me the point that the Florida National Guard is too small,” he said.
Eifert believes the Florida Guard needs about 20,000 guardsmen; its number is capped at about 12,000. He was in Washington the first week of February working with congressional delegations to help increase staffing, he said. The Guard receives funding from the state and the federal government.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed 2021-22 budget recommends more than $68 million go toward the Guard. The current year budget is more than $72 million.
DeSantis’ proposal would double the Guard’s armory repair and maintenance funding from last year, which would help cover costs such as keeping roofs from leaking and air conditioners running at training facilities that average about 48 years old, Eifert said.
The Guard is continuing to support coronavirus testing and vaccination, but the hope is for an eventual return to more regular scheduling.
“We cannot anticipate what’s going to happen,” Eifert said. “But what we do know is that we are equipped, trained, organized, disciplined, to be able to manage whatever comes at us.”
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