Golden State Guardians

by Sonner Kehrt

In a year of unprecedented natural disasters and a spreading virus, the California National Guard has become the new last line of defense.

When Johanna Vera hugged her 2-year-old daughter this past Mother’s Day, she hadn’t seen her in over a month. “It was so exciting,” she says. “I was overwhelmed.” But at the end of the day, Vera had to pack up her bag, leaving her daughter with her parents in Modesto, and headed back to a hotel in San Mateo, where she’d been staying since April — and where she’s been since. A corporal in the California National Guard, Vera has been deployed for the last seven months helping with the guard’s statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As of right now, my orders end at the end of December,” she explains. “[But] you never really know when it’s over until it’s over.”

Like the rest of us, the California National Guard has seen a historic year. Massive protests and wildfire after wildfire are layered on top of what seems like a never-ending pandemic, and the Cal Guard is responding to all of it.

“Ten or 15 years ago, we would have a response to a large-scale disaster maybe once every five to seven years,” says Major General David Baldwin, the state adjutant general — and Stanford grad — who leads the California National Guard. This year, those types of emergencies are coming at a breakneck pace, meaning thousands of citizen-soldiers like Vera are putting their civilian lives on hold and leaving behind families, jobs and normal routines to serve as the state’s last line of defense.

Most people know the National Guard as the primary combat reserve component of the U.S. Army and Air Force. But members also serve domestically, responding to emergencies, supporting communities in need and helping to maintain order when necessary.

“We do everything from housing the homeless to ballistic missile defense, to everything in between,” says Baldwin. It’s a broad range of missions for the guard’s nearly 20,000 members, the vast majority of whom are part-time soldiers who also hold civilian jobs.

U.S. Army Pfc. Marcus Echevarria, with the California Army National Guard’s 224th Sustainment Brigade, assemble emergency food kits during a COVID-19 humanitarian response mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Capt. Jason Sanchez)

When COVID-19 began stalking California in early March, the Cal Guard was among the first to respond. An outbreak aboard the cruise ship Grand Princess meant the ship was unable to dock, leaving some 3,500 people stranded in the waters off San Francisco. Pararescue jumpers from the guard’s129th Rescue Wing delivered testing kits to the ship’s abandoned pool deck, allowing ship workers to assess the outbreak and ultimately safely disembark passengers.

Just over a week later, Governor Gavin Newsom placed the guard on alert to assist with COVID response statewide. While medical units quickly deployed to help with virus testing, especially in places like skilled-nursing facilities, Cal Guard units were also activated for less typical missions. One of the guard’s first major COVID-related operations was helping food banks — which were hit with the double whammy of volunteers staying at home and increased hunger throughout the state — to package and deliver meals. Since the start of the pandemic, he guard has helped provide nearly 100 million meals across California.

“It’s been a journey,” says Colonel Jesse Miller. “We’ve been going very hard and consistently at the COVID response for seven months.” Miller, who works as a partner at the law firm Reed Smith in San Francisco in his civilian life, has been serving as the deputy commander for the joint task force directing the guard’s in-state operations since April.

In June, when protests against racial injustice shook the nation, the guard was tasked with another mission: helping law enforcement with crowd control and protecting against looting or rioting that might occur alongside protests. With pandemic response ongoing, the guard deployed an additional 10,000 people across the state. “It was pretty much everyone that we had available that was either not on a COVID mission, or not in the pipeline to deploy overseas,” Baldwin says.

Then, in late summer, the fires started. In September, the Cal Guard made national news for a daring rescue mission during the Creek Fire, when air-crews evacuated more than 200 people trapped by flames in the Sierra National Forest. Guard units have also been busy with other operations during this historic fire season, conducting water drops via helicopter, fighting the fires on the ground and providing widescale fire-mapping and incident awareness.

The combined turmoil of 2020 has happened on top of the guard’s normal operations, which include everything from training for overseas deployments to providing state cyber-security to running the California Cadet Corps, a program similar to JROTC. Looking forward, Baldwin sees this year as less of an anomaly, and more as something approaching a new normal. “We see the effects of climate change causing bad fires and floods, and things like that,” he says. “The demand signal for support here at home is going to rise as California’s population increases.”

(Courtesy of California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services)

The nonstop missions this year, and future challenges, mean the guard is thinking about how to best prepare. “When I was a private and then a young second lieutenant, we very rarely got called out,” says Baldwin. “A lot of the people that are joining the guard now expect it. They want to be deployed overseas. They want to get called out for these fires.”

Baldwin and other senior leaders are considering restructuring the historic one-weekend-a-month training regimen to be less taxing on families and members’ employers. They’re calling on units to take on missions beyond their areas of expertise. And they’re learning how deploying such a large force here at home presents challenges — but also opportunities — for their troops.

Guard members aren’t immune to the challenges facing California. In August, the coronavirus claimed the life of a 36-year-old guardsman based in Fresno. The reckoning over racial injustice affects soldiers and airmen, just as it does civilians. And fires from Humboldt to San Bernardino mean that even while troops are working to mitigate these crises, their own communities are at risk. Every time a new firebreaks out, the guard leadership overlays a map of where local guardsmen live, so they know whose families are evacuating. In August, the coronavirus claimed the life of a 36-year-old guardsman based in Fresno. The reckoning over racial injustice affects soldiers and airmen, just as it does civilians. And fires from Humboldt to San Bernardino mean that even while troops are working to mitigate these crises, their own communities are at risk. Every time a new fire breaks out, the guard leadership overlays a map of where local guardsmen live, so they know whose families are evacuating.

Miller, who has deployed to places like Kuwait and Kosovo, says these sorts of challenges are different from those faced overseas, where the civilian side of life fades more easily to the back of the mind. Being deployed in the state can be tough. The intensity of the mission and concerns about the virus mean that soldiers can’t just swing home for a family dinner. “You’re at home in beautiful California, but you can’t go home,” Miller says.

At the same time, increasing domestic deployments do offer a benefit absent in overseas operations. When a fire destroys a community, or when a family member contracts COVID, troops are often able to take leave to address things at home. And occasional day passes that allow things like a trip from San Mateo to Modesto on Mother’s Day can provide sustenance to keep going when things get hard.

In August, one of Vera’s uncles died from COVID complications. Less than a week later, another uncle passed away — also from complications from the virus. Vera was able to take time off to grieve with her family. And she could spend some time with her daughter again. But before long, she was packing her bag to head back to San Mateo, to help with coordinating the complex movement of California National Guard forces around the state to fight the virus that had scarred her own family.

A native Californian, Vera remains positive about her role with the guard and grateful for the opportunity to serve her state in a time of need. “I hope that one day when my daughter is older, she can understand, ‘Yes, I know my mom was gone for a bit, but she was doing it for the greater good,’” Vera says. “These are my people.”

What Else Does the Cal Guard Do?

In addition to deploying troops to emergencies and myriad missions across the state, the guard runs ongoing programs year-round.

Illustration by Wendy Wong.
Cyber Operations

The Cal Guard runs the Cyber Network Defense Team, which assists state and local agencies with cybersecurity expertise, and helps staff the Security Operations Center, which provides statewide round-the-clock cyber defense — a particularly critical mission during events like the 2020 election.

Illustration by Wendy Wong.
Youth Programs

The California National Guard helps run six middle and high schools throughout the state, including the Bay Area’s Oakland Military Institute. These programs offer mentorship and leadership training, and tend to focus on at-risk youth.

Illustration by Wendy Wong.
Employment Assistance for Veterans

Work for Warriors is a guard-run program that helps veterans from all services and their families, along with survivors of natural disasters, build their resumes and connect with prospective employers. Since its founding in 2012, more than 7,500 veterans and others have been hired through the program in California.

Illustration by Wendy Wong.
Aerospace Control Alert

Cal Guard fighter jets help maintain airspace security in the western United States. This program, put in place after 9/11, ensures that planes can be scrambled immediately when an airborne threat is detected.

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