Breakneck pace of crises keeps National Guard away from home
SHADDADI, Syria (AP) — In the searing 108-degree heat, far from his Louisiana health care business, Army Col. Scott Desormeaux and his soldiers are on a dusty base near Syria’s northern border, helping Syrian rebel forces battle Islamic State militants and keeping an eye on Russian troops in the region.
It’s tough duty for the soldiers. But their deployment to the Middle East last November is just a small part of the blistering pace of missions that members of the Louisiana National Guard and America’s other citizen-soldiers have faced in the past 18 months.
Beyond overseas deployments, Guard members have been called in to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and protests against racial injustice. For many, it’s meant months away from their civilian jobs and scarce times with families. While Guard leaders say troops are upbeat, they worry about exhaustion setting in and wonder how much longer U.S. businesses can do without their long-absent workers.
Back home in Louisiana, Sgt. 1st Class Bray Harris has been living in hotels around Baton Rouge since March 2020, helping provide COVID-19 testing and the vaccine to residents. He’s only been able to race home to Lake Charles — two hours away — a few times, including to evacuate his mother during one of the major storms that hit the state.
Nearby at Camp Beauregard, Capt. Michael Switzer has been sleeping in his office. Over the past 15 months, he and his soldiers have juggled security and work at virus testing sites with road clearance and emergency supply deliveries during the storms and then distribution of the vaccine. For Father’s Day, his wife bought him a cot and a 5-inch-thick foam mattress to replace the air mattress he’d been using.
Since March 2020, Guard units around the country have been lurching from one national crisis to the next. They were tapped almost immediately when the pandemic broke out to help conduct testing, build field hospitals, provide health care and, eventually, deliver vaccines. But at the same time, many — like those in Louisiana — were also facing a record year of storms and hurricanes while taking weeks off from their regular jobs to protect their communities during the race riots. More than 26,000 Guard members deployed to Washington, D.C., to secure the president’s inauguration.
“This past year was an extraordinary one for the National Guard,” said Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. Does he worry about exhaustion setting in? “That’s something I’ve been very concerned with right from the start.”
As he makes his rounds, he said the Guard troops are upbeat and tell him, “Hey, this is what we signed up to do.” But across the states, there are growing concerns about returning troops to their regular jobs and getting them back to critical training schedules.
For Desormeaux, last year began with the pandemic outbreak, as his soldiers deployed to help build a 2,000-bed hospital at the Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans. Others spread out across the state, setting up mobile testing sites and delivering testing kits where needed.
Then, in early June, Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall in Louisiana, becoming the first of six named storms and hurricanes to hit the state last year. And as the hurricane season was wrapping up, Desormeaux’s 256th Infantry Brigade packed up and headed to Syria.
“It’s probably the most challenging two-year period you can find,” he told reporters who traveled to Shaddadi with Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, top commander for the Middle East. “But I think it just really speaks to the dedication and professionalism of these kids because they were there every step of the way.”
When Harris moved into the Doubletree Hotel in Baton Rouge in March 2020 to be near his Guard logistics post, he didn’t know he’d be leaving his job at the Louisiana Department of…