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As It Responds To The Pandemic, The National Guard Says More People Want To Enlist

Spc. Trent Bostic of the North Carolina National Guard examines and sorts produce at a Food Bank.
Hannah Tarkelly
U.S. Army National Guard
Spc. Trent Bostic of the North Carolina National Guard examines and sorts produce at a Food Bank.

In some states, recruiters are reporting an uptick in the number of people who are expressing interest in joining the Guard.

National Guard recruiters in some states say they're seeing a surge of interest from people hoping to join.

The jump could be a consequence of the Guard's stepped-up mission; more than 48,600 troops and airmen have been mobilized for COVID-19 related duties since the pandemic began. But deep job cuts and furloughs could also be driving people uncertain of their financial futures into recruiters' virtual doorways.

Around the country, units have been mobilized for tasks not usually associated with the Guard's traditional warfighting and natural disaster response missions. In North Carolina, Army National Guard soldiers with the 130th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade were put to work inspecting eggs for a local food bank. In Indiana, parachute riggers switched to sewing face masks. New York guardsmen helped with mortuary affairs, while a unit in Wisconsin donned crinkling protective suits to conduct drive-through COVID-19 testing at a sports and entertainment complex.

"Our unique mission in the National Guard is to fight our nation's wars overseas when called but also to serve our states," said North Carolina National Guard spokesman Col. Matthew DeVivo. "These guardsmen are finding out that we can do just about anything if we're given the chance and if the state requires it."

DeVivo called the Guard's fight against the pandemic "a defining moment in our state's National Guard history."

Citizens across the country are taking notice. In Maryland, Public Affairs Officer Jen Alston reported a sizeable increase in traffic to the Maryland National Guard's website and social media platforms. The same is true in Colorado. Arizona and California have reported a jump in the number of new applicants.

Nationally, recruiting leads for the Army National Guard are up 90 percent compared to last year, according to National Guard Bureau information.

In Colorado, where National Guard troops and airmen delivered meals to Denver's homeless population and converted the convention center into a medical facility, recruiters noticed higher than usual interest from potential applicants beginning April 1, days after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Lieutenant Colonel George O'Neill, the recruiting and retention commander for the Colorado Army National Guard, said furloughs and lay-offs could be playing a role.

"We obviously ask our applicants why they're interested in joining the National Guard," O'Neill said. "And some of them are more frank with us than others that they want to help out and get involved. Or some are unemployed and negatively affected by the virus."

In California, recruiters who normally meet with two to five people each day are fielding requests from 10 to 15, according to Master Sergeant Alberto Gastelum, the recruiting and retention section chief for San Diego County.

"The exposure that we're currently having with everything that we're doing here in California and nationwide has made a big impact," Gastelum said. "Now, we're having an increase of people saying, 'Hey, I want to join because I want to help in any future emergencies. I want to be part of your guys' team.'"

Jake Stanish is one of those people. He is a public school teacher who moved from Boston to California weeks before the pandemic shut everything down - including his hopes of substitute teaching. Inspired by what he saw the National Guard doing in his new hometown of San Diego - and with a newfound glut of time on his hands, Stanish decided to apply.

"There's just a lot going on that the Guard can help with and is helping with," he said.

He said whether it's deploying to Afghanistan or at a neighborhood food bank, he's eager to help wherever he's needed.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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