The Missouri National Guard has been more publicly present in more communities this year than in a long time, and the Guard's leader said service members and the force are physically and psychologically weathering the same statewide disaster they're responding to — the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Mike Parson first activated the National Guard on March 26 in response to the pandemic. Since then, Missouri National Guard leader Adj. Gen. Levon Cumpton said, approximately 3,200 Missouri Army and Air National Guard members have been mobilized at one time or another this year, including to respond to civil unrest and federal support missions.
The Guard's response to the pandemic will continue through at least Dec. 30, when Parson's latest extension of their activation is set to expire.
Cumpton agreed the Guard's presence in communities this year is the most public one Missourians have seen in a long time, especially for the duration and size of the Guard's response.
"I do think that our involvement in our local communities and across the state has spoken very highly of the Missouri Guard and has created interest amongst our young people and people coming off active duty to continue their service," he said.
He cited the Army Guard's end strength number was not only high but had increased over the past few months — 107.6 percent at the middle of last month, up 1.4 percent.
End strength refers to the size of the force that's authorized. The number being above 100 percent means there are more people in the formation than authorized — who are trained and assigned a job all the same — and that's a good sign of high interest in being part of the formation, Cumpton explained.
Missouri National Guard leader: 2020's responses rival previous record yearsRead more
Maj. Jonathan Klusmeyer, deputy public affairs director for the Missouri National Guard, said the combined end strength for the Army and Air National Guard was at 102 percent.
"I know I can't specifically pinpoint it to our involvement (in responding to the pandemic), but I know it's got to help because I know people are encouraged by being on a team that cares about one another," Cumpton said.
The National Guard does not exist only as domestic disaster response force. Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in a U.S. Department of Defense-published story last year: "We exist because of our wartime mission. It just so happens because we are trained to fight a war that we have the training, the personnel and the leaders that can respond to virtually anything. A disaster to them is 'we are just doing another mission set.'"
Cumpton said, "I believe when people know that they're cared for, it makes a huge difference, and people want to be on a team that has a winning spirit to achieve something more than they could ever achieve by themselves.
"The morale of the formation is high, even with COVID and civil unrest, and I think, again, it comes back in large part because our service members enjoy helping their communities," he said. "We do make resources available to our teammates — from chaplains to Military OneSource — so they can have access to help, should they need it. But in the reports I've had over the last few months, I haven't seen any increase for that, which is encouraging."
Military OneSource is a counseling service available 24/7 — providing advice on a wide variety of issues including parenting, elder care, the transition to civilian life, education, health and wellness, tax questions, health care and stress. Consultants are available at 800-342-9647.
Cumpton said the Guard's attrition rate this year has held steady at its five-year average of between 12.5-13 percent.
"Considering COVID and the missions we've had, I'm pretty proud of that," he said.
While the pandemic has disrupted high schools and colleges this year, he added, recruiters have still met their goals by adapting to do more social media and telephone outreach.
For security reasons, Cumpton could not share the number of Guard members who have tested positive for coronavirus — though there have been positive cases — but said the number had not reached a point of concern about whether the Guard's response readiness was affected.
"The Missouri Guard remains extremely strong, but it's due in large part to the discipline of our service members in following health protocols of social distancing, wearing a mask when needed and hygiene," he said.