More than 8,100 members of the U.S. National Guard have been mobilized across the U.S. to help communities deal with the coronavirus. In some states, they're moving supplies and people. In California, they're working at food banks; in Arizona, some members are restocking shelves.
On Monday, NPR's Ailsa Chang interviewed Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. Here are two questions she posed to him, and his responses, which have been edited for length and clarity.
Individual governors have wide discretion on how to use the guard members in their individual states. Can you explain how that is preferable to a more coordinated federal response with the National Guard?
Each individual state has a different problem set to deal with. Some are being overrun with new [cases of coronavirus] and lots of sick people, like currently New York and Washington, and a growing number in California. Every state's problem set is not the same. So if you try to impose a nationwide federal problem set over every single state, you probably would not be doing it nearly as efficiently as you can if you let each state manage their forces [according to] each problem set.
And people have studied disaster response — it doesn't matter whether it's a hurricane or flood or fire — people that have studied how this works. The response is always better when the experts on the ground at the point of the emergency are making decisions on how to apply resources and allocate people and equipment and funds, so that you can get quicker the resource you need to fix the problem.
What would you say to Americans who might be startled or uncomfortable when they see troops in military gear in their communities, or see military vehicles on their streets?
First of all, I would say to them that when they see the National Guard, they see the Humvee, normally it has a calming effect. They feel like we have competent, prepared, well-equipped people who are here to save lives and to mitigate suffering. And when we're not fighting wars for our nation, that's what we do in the homeland. We protect our communities.
I think that when the National Guard shows up, whether it's helping some sick person that's waiting to get checked in the hospital line to hand them a bottle of water or whatever they're doing, we make people feel more at ease. It lets them feel like we are here, we are not forgotten, and we have people that are here to help. And those people are the National Guard.
A longer version of this interview will air today on All Things Considered.