Transcript

Chief of the National Guard Bureau Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel Press Briefing on COVID-19 Response

March 19, 2020
Chief of the National Guard Bureau Air Force General Joseph L. Lengyel

STAFF:  Good morning, everyone.  Thank you all for coming today and thank you to those that are joining us virtually.

Gen. Lengyel will be providing some brief on-the-record comments regarding the National Guard and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Following, he will take questions.

Please respect the 30 minutes we have with the general and keep your questions aimed at the briefing topic, COVID-19 response.  I'd also like to point out that we provided packets to you and in those will be Gen. Lengyel's bio, as well as other fact sheets from the National Guard.

Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell will be calling questions.  When asking a question, please identify yourself and your outlet and limit to one question and one follow-up in the interest of time.

With that, I'll turn it over to Gen. Lengyel for his comments.

Sir?

GENERAL JOSEPH L. LENGYEL:  Thank you.

Good morning, everybody; I'm glad to be here today to fill you in on what's going on in the National Guard.

So, today, we face a national emergency in this COVID-19 pandemic.  This is a serious situation, and we are all concerned about the health and safety of our fellow Americans, our first responders and our citizen soldiers and airmen.

Thus far, six members of the National Guard have tested positive for COVID-19.  We have Force Health Protection measures in place and we'll continue to keep our National Guard members informed as the situation develops.

We all play an important part in ensuring the health and safety of our communities and this responsibility we take seriously.  We are here to support each other and to support our communities.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about what the National Guard is doing in response to COVID-19.  First of all, it's an historic event unlike any we have faced in recent years.  For example, when there's a hurricane, you can see it on a map, you have a sense of how hard the storm will hit and how long the storm will last.

With COVID-19, it's like we have 54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.  Some are Category 5s, some are Category 3s, some are Category 1s.  Unlike a hurricane, we don't know when this is going to dissipate or move out to sea.  But a historic event demands a historic response, and that's what the National Guard is prepared to do as America's principal domestic military response force.

The National Guard is a unique military component.  We are part of the Air Force and part of the Army.  We -- but if you were going to design an ideal military component to assist with a response like this, it would be a component like the National Guard.  We are 450,000 strong in every state, territory, nearly every ZIP code in the country.

When disaster strikes, we don't have to mobilize from some base.  We pack a lunch, we go to work, because we are already there in the communities where these events are taking place.  We live there, we can respond faster.

We bring our military training, equipment and experience to help our communities here at home.  What we offer is unlike any other military component to our communities.

While circumstances will continue to evolve, here are the facts as they stand.  All 54 states, territories, and the District of Columbia have declared a state of emergency.  Governors in 27 states have activated parts of their National Guard.  Across those 27 states, at this time 2,050 National Guard members have been brought on state-active duty to assist the response.  We anticipate that number going up relatively quickly -- in fact, doubling by this weekend; and we expect the total number of Guardsmen activated will increase rapidly as test kits become available and as the situation unfolds.

We are ready to respond, depending on the needs of the community and as ordered by the response network by the governors in every state.  We are involved in a multitude of mission sets in functional areas.  The National Guard is providing medical testing, assessments, facilities, ground transportation, logistics, command-and-control, planners, liaison officers, and we will continue to adapt as this unfold.

We are already making a difference in communities across the country.  For example, the New York National Guard have been helping local officials distribute food to those who need it, much in the hard-hit area of New Rochelle.  The Tennessee Air National Guard's C-17 delivered swabs, half a million swabs, to be added to test kits to Memphis yesterday, just yesterday.  In south Florida, more than 500 soldiers are assisting with collecting samples for drive-through testing in Broward County.  In Maryland, the National Guard is supporting medical assessments and testing site operations.  Wisconsin are supporting transportation missions for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.  In Louisiana, Guard liaison officer is -- liaison officers are assisting the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and across the country our Civil Support Teams are supporting the local Departments of Health and drive -- with drive-through testing stations.  It was just two weeks ago, California National Guard started this with the California National Guard, who delivered test kits to the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast.  This is just a sample of the efforts that we are supporting across the country.

Going forward, we expect the role of the National Guard will continue to grow and evolve to meet the country's needs during this historic pandemic.  We remain flexible and committed to whatever mission we may be called to do.  I want to thank all of our Guard members and all the first responders for their service during this difficult time.  We continue to rise to every challenge before us and continue to work with our partners to keep our nation safe and remain true to our motto:  Always Ready, Always There.

I appreciate your time and I look forward to your questions.

STAFF:  Bob?

Q:  General, Bob Burns from AP.

You mentioned that the 2,000-plus Guard members who have been called up by governors at this point.  I’m wondering, is there any discussion you're having, others are having about the possibility of mobilizing the Guard under federal authority?  And what would be the advantage of doing that?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So you know, I -- the National Guard is a reserve component of the United States Army and Air Force, and certainly, if the president with this declaration, if he wanted to mobilize the National Guard in a Title 10 federal status, he could do that.  But that would not make sense in this situation.  The best use of the National Guard is to use the National Guard for the unique authorities that it has, and that is to remain under the command and control of the -- of the networks in the states.

Every state has a different way to deal with disasters, and the National Guard is uniquely qualified and postured to act under the command and control of the governors in the state.  And so if you were to federalize them, you would lose that ability, and you would lose some other things.  For instance, a unique attribute -- attribute of the National Guard is we can -- we can operate as -- as law enforcement capacity to assist state and local law enforcement inside the states; and if you were to federalize the National Guard, then you would lose that ability to -- to do that.

So, while -- I mean certainly the -- the president can mobilize and federalize the National Guard but it would be my advice -- and I -- and there's no plans that I'm aware of to -- to take the National Guards in the states and put them in a federal status. They are much better used in a state status under command and control of the governors.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  General, you talked about the Tennessee Guard moving those half million swabs to Memphis.  I guess FedEx is going to distribute them around the country.  Walk us through what you think the Guard role will be after that point.

I mean, do you -- after the tests are done, do Guard members get into the labs?  What do you -- what do you expect your role to be -- cause that's a large volume of swabs obviously -- once that starts moving?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So I -- you know, I think that, you know, best determined by the situation in -- in each and every state and -- and the capacities in each and every state from what they have as a -- in the civilian sector and in the public health sector and all of the rest.

The National Guard will be used in a variety -- some -- some -- and I know Tennessee is planning to establish perhaps drive-through test sites.  You know, we have a medical capability where we can train members of the National Guard to administer -- actually administer the tests or support other civilian medical professionals who might administer the test.

So we -- we could clearly be involved in directly administering the tests if that was the case.  I mean, some states -- Colorado, New York, Rhode Island -- have already used their National Guards to actually administer tests and I mentioned this morning, Florida is rapidly expanding to do that.

We could be the transportation mechanism that -- that actually delivers and equips the various drive-through test sites that are out there.  Logistics, command and control, planning, we can help the emergency response network plan that.

So all of the functional messages that I mentioned earlier in my opening remarks will be involved across the spectrum as individual states see fit.  And -- and that's what's best about the way it's set now, is -- as you might think, well there's only 2,050 members on state active duty.

As these mission sets and requirements develop, the governors can incrementally bring -- and -- and even though there's only 27 that have added National Guard members -- every state adjutants general and every state's joint force headquarters is thinking and planning about how best to integrate.  They're integrating with the public health services inside the states.

And so we're doing that and -- and -- and we can become available and come on duty in a matter of hours --

Q:  So you have 2,000 roughly Guard members taking part in this and you said it'll double I guess by this weekend --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- does the planning show you, down the road, a month, two months, what are you telling your Guard members?  Do we expect it to go up -- I mean, give -- give us a sense of --

GEN. LENGYEL:  You know it's hard to tell what the exact requirement will be but I'm expecting tens of thousands to be used inside the states as the -- as this grows, you know, and -- and I think that states have the capacity and are planning to -- to do those kinds of things.

Just as I had my -- you know, I've been having calls with the adjutants generals in every states but I think that this could quickly blossom in the next couple of weeks as governors and -- and states determine their needs and ways to use the -- their National Guards.

Q:  Thank you.  Tara Copp with McClatchy.

General, you've mentioned that you also plan for hurricanes, and we've learned that this could go well into July and August, deep into hurricane season.  What sort of planning are you doing right now for communities -- coastal communities that may be in self-quarantine?  You might be dealing with these two disasters at once.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Sure.  I -- I think, you know, there are -- there are many things that the Department of Defense and the National Guard's going to have to do.  I mean, we're still do -- ongoing with our continuous deployments around the world to every combatant commander, states are still planning, particularly in the Gulf Coast in -- for hurricanes that will come up along the side.

I mean, I think we're dealing with this issue right now as the closest, nearest issue that the states have to deal with.  But, you know, if and when a hurricane were to come, the states will be prepared and the emergency response work -- network, FEMA, the whole apparatus will be ready to come together and deal with that if we have to do it as well.

Q:  But what sort of planning, I think -- are you doing planning already?  Because, you know, if a hurricane comes, everyone's told to evacuate.  But what if you have a community that's, you know, in quarantine?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Yeah.  Well, I think that's a -- I think that's a good question.  I mean, right now I think we're in the midst of dealing with this pandemic and the flu, and every state, every year plans to deal with evacuation procedures and policies and how are we going to get our people away from the coast.  So I think that those plans are sitting there, on the shelf.  We may have to adapt how we -- how we do it, if people are -- you know, if there's quarantine things out there.

But, you know, hopefully by July, August timeframe, when the -- when the hurricanes hit with the traditional size, it perhaps could be mitigated by then.  But we'll just have to deal with that when it comes to it.

STAFF:  OK, for everybody that we've got on the phones right now, I'd like to remind the media that's on our phone lines to kind of -- to mute your phones, we're getting a lot of feedback on the lines.  So, please, we'll be going to you shortly.

Phil?

Q:  You have over 21,000 Guard overseas.  Is there any thought that as this crisis accelerates in the coming weeks -- which is the projection -- that the -- at some point, you know, potentially, this could be your priority?  The national mission could be your priority as opposed to the overseas mission?  Is there any thought about, you know, kind of reconfiguring how the -- how the Guard does business, dividing up its priorities?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, you know, the National Guard is a combat reserve of the United States Army, United States Air Force.  And so we have -- the role that we play as part of the Army and the Air Force, I think, will continue.

And so -- I mean, to bring people home from current mission, I mean, if you bring people home that are doing mission overseas, there are national security implications of what we're doing around the world.  Those are important things.  You’ll have to send another piece over there to replace them.

So the way our -- the Department of Defense is built these days is, it doesn't do, really, any missions around the world without using pieces of the Reserve component and the National Guard.  So I don't think there are plans to retrieve missions that are being mobilized overseas at this point.  We're going to continue to be part of those deployments, going forward.

Q:  And do you think that the -- are there are -- are there any Guard overseas that have -- that have tested positive?  Are you concerned that Guard overseas are getting testing enough and their tests are being turned around fast enough?

GEN. LENGYEL:  I think that Guardsmen overseas are -- they're part of the United States Army, United States Air Force and if they need testing, they're getting medical treatment no different than any other member of the military.

I'm not aware of any National Guard member that has tested positive in overseas, but if there is, they'll be treated like any other airman or any other soldier.

STAFF:  Jennifer, we’ll go to you and then we'll go to the phones next.

Q:  Yes.  General Lengyel, just to follow up on Phil's questions.  Are there tests for National Guardsmen in the military overseas that have been administered?  I mean, do you have tests?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Does the National Guard have tests?

Q:  (inaudible) wherever they're located, are people actually getting tested or do we just not know that they may have it because they have not been tested?

GEN. LENGYEL:  I think the -- the military apparatus that's overseas has some testing.  If the -- and you know, the -- the same process is in place for any military member that might need to test.

Q:  OK.  And in terms of the -- I'm trying to understand what is the downside of mobilizing the National Guard with a federal order?  If you could explain that for our audience, you know, more clearly, what would they not be able to do in terms of law enforcement if they are mobilized from a federal -- at the federal level?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So Posse Comitatus, using the Title 10 military members in a law enforcement capacity against the American people is prohibited.  And so I think that we want to keep -- and that is Title 10, active duty military forces that you can't do that with.

So if you keep the National Guard under the command and control of their governors in what we call Title 32 or state active duty status, they have additional authorities that can assist law enforcement and they maintain their direct command and control links within their states.  It makes it a faster, more rapid, more -- more efficient response for the governor and the state emergency response network to use them.

And so that's the reason we want to keep them in a -- in a state status as -- as we go forward.

Q:  Can I follow up on that?  Courtney Kube with NBC News.

So do you see -- you see a role in law enforcement for National Guard troops going forward in response to coronavirus?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Could be.  I mean, I -- I think that, you know, in many disasters and response, when there's a -- a -- a pressure put on otherwise civilian, law enforcement activities, people get sick, they need more law enforcement potential out there, then the National Guard could be used in that capacity.

If they would -- do I see it happening now?  I -- I -- I don't see any demand signal that's demanding we're going to use the National Guard in that -- in that -- in that kind of scenario, but they could.  Governors could under the command and control of the governors and law enforcement in the states, they could use their National Guard.

Q:  Can you give us just a couple of examples of the types of things they could be used for in law enforcement?

GEN. LENGYEL:  They -- they could be used for, you know, if they wanted to, you know, assist patrols, if -- if they wanted to, you know, just in general law enforcement to make sure that people were, you know, following laws and just anything that the -- that the law enforcement capacity normally does, they could be augmented with National Guard troops.

Q:  Enforcing curfews, possibly?

GEN. LENGYEL:  I -- you know, they could be out there with law enforcement and generally they are with civilian law enforcement when they do it.  They could be used in any number of capacities that the governor might see fit.

STAFF:  OK.  We’re going to go to the phones.  Sylvie from AFP?

(CROSSTALK)

OK, we'll come -- we'll come back to the phones.  To the floor?  Sarah?

Q:  What sort of preparations are you doing for -- if the Guard is used to help either construct or man field hospitals?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I mean, you know, I think that the Guard has the capacity to have engineer units, they can build things, they can -- they can -- you know, I haven't heard of any plans to build field hospitals using the National Guard, but we have the ability to use National Guard manpower, engineer capacity and heavy equipment to do whatever it is the state apparatus sees that it needs to do.

Q:  Sorry, could I -- could I follow up on that same -- same point? 

GEN. LENGYEL: Sure.

Q:  My question is on the -- on the field hospitals, there are, if I'm not mistaken, Guard units that are combat support hospital units.  Are you -- are they -- they -- have they been activated, or are they being used, or will they be?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I mean, there have been some medical capability used.  New York has -- has brought 50 medics onboard.  I think the total number of the 2,000 people are medical technicians, but as far as bringing on field hospitals, you know, there's -- there's -- that capacity has not been activated in the -- in the National Guard.

Q:  But it -- it exists in the Guard?

GEN. LENGYEL:  I'm not sure.  I don't think we have actually field hospitals in the National Guard.  I think that's more Army Reserve kind of things, with field hospitals, but we do have medical technicians and medical capabilities and medical battalions and, you know, medical technicians and the like, and if the governors want to mobilize them and use them in a -- in a -- in a sense, they can do that.

Q:  Thank you.

GEN. LENGYEL:  And, you know, the issue with the medical issue, as -- as we've talked about many times, is -- is -- is if you were to activate the Reserve component medical forces and bring them on duty in the military, you're taking them out of the civilian system.

So it's a -- kind of a zero sum game here with medical technicians and medical personnel.

Q:  That's why I asked about field hospitals because there's the -- a lot of talk about the need for that.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Yeah.

Q:  They don’t exist in the Guard as far as you know --

GEN. LENGYEL:  I -- I don't think we have field hospitals in Guard.  I could be wrong, but I'll check that and get back with you.

STAFF:  In the back?

Q:  Hi.  (Inaudible) with Colorado Public Radio.  Thanks for doing this.

I have a process question going back to the not federalizing, keeping it under state control.  If, say, like Colorado needs more National Guard to test, you know, potential cases, would they have to go through you guys to request it?  Like, if Kansas had extra or Arkansas had extra capacity to get them over?  How would that work?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I mean, you know, traditionally -- if you use my hurricane example -- in -- in -- in the past, we have National Guards share via emergency management assistance compacts state-to-state their various capabilities, and they can -- they can make those deals from one state to another and they generally -- they don't have to come through us or the National Guard.

But we generally play the role of, "hey, we can find another state that has unused capacity that they may be able to create a EMAC agreement with -- with another state."  So if Colorado perhaps wanted to find some help, they could come to us to do that.

STAFF:  Yeah.  Barbara, we're going to go to you and after this we're going to try the phones again.

And again, if you are on the phone, please mute your phones.  We've got a feedback loop going on which is keeping us from being able to go to you.  Thank you.

Q:  Can I go back to the issue again of federalizing the Guard, cause there's something I still don't understand?  Could you just explain if you -- by not federalizing the Guard, what -- number one, if you do not do that, are there any capabilities separate from law enforcement that you are foregoing by not federalizing the Guard?

And if you did federalize the Guard, is there some automatic, "well therefore, they have law enforcement authorities," wouldn't there be some additional step -- you're concerned about them being in law enforcement, Posse Comitatus, but wouldn’t there be some additional step before they could even engage in law enforcement activities?

Federal -- does federalizing the Guard automatically give them law enforcement authorities, but what would you be foregoing by -- by not federalizing the --

GEN. LENGYEL:  So federalizing the National Guard, you actually take them out from under the command and control inside their states and you give them to a -- a -- a federal Title 10 military structure.  And so it's -- it's a much more efficient system to leave the Guard in a state status.

They still have all the structure, all the equipment, all the people.  The governor can access every single component of the -- the system.  It -- it also provides a -- a -- more of a flexible option to use the Guard.  I'll give you an example of if you -- if you had -- if you needed to use some -- some piece – 130-man unit of a piece of the National Guard, and you said, "well, if I -- if I take all of that, I'm going to take all of the police officers out of this civilian community." If they're in a state status, the local commander can say, "let's not use those, let's -- let's leave the police in their civilian jobs, those 10 people and we'll take 120 people."

Once you start federalizing the National Guard, now you make it a less flexible system to be used in the states.

Q:  So just to follow up again, does federalizing the Guard automatically convey law enforcement authority?

GEN. LENGYEL:  No.

Q:  So that's not really an issue, then, because there would still be other -- you're concerned about law enforcement -- them engaging in law enforcement, that there's another step --

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. LENGYEL:  -- the ability to use the Guard in law enforcement is an authority that they have when they are not federalized.

Q:  Right.  So here's my -- here's what I don't understand.  This is potentially -- if you listen to the administration and the states already, one of the most dire situations the country has faced in recent years, if federalize -- and I take your point that, you know, you believe federalizing is not the right answer.  So if it's not the right answer -- and I mean this sincerely -- why does that option even exist?

GEN. LENGYEL:  To federalize them?

Q:  Yes.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Well, I mean, if we were to go to war with a major peer competitor and you need to -- need -- if you needed to grow the United States Army by 350,000 people, then Congress would give us the mobilization authority to federalize all of the National Guard, and the National Guard would all be part of the United States Army and then we would go to war.  So that is the World War II scenario of using the National Guard:  everyone is mobilized in a federal status.

Q:  And you don't -- generally, you don't see this crisis at that point yet?

GEN. LENGYEL:  I think you can get everything you need from the National Guard more efficiently and more effectively if you leave them in a state status.  Those 450,000 men and women are out in the 54 states, territories and the district.  They are there.  Their equipment, if they're not mobilized overseas, it is there for the governor to use it if you need it.

If you mobilize all of the National Guard, it's going to cost billions and billions and billions of dollars and a lot of people won't have things to do to -- to -- I mean, there is no need right now to have 450,000 Guardsmen on duty in any given state.  As states need the National Guard to react to this pandemic, governors have the authority to bring them on, on active duty, as there are tasks and purpose for them to be used.

So that's why, to me, it makes much more sense -- and to the governors, and to the 54 adjutant generals, it makes much more sense to leave them so that they can be mobilized as they need, piece at a time, under the command and control of the networks that are in the states.

Q:  Very quickly, I assume you've told this to the secretary, the chairman?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Absolutely.

STAFF:  OK, we've got time for one more. We're going to try to get back to the phone lines one more time.

Sylvie, AFP, are you with us?

Q:  Hello, do you hear me?

STAFF:  We do.

Q:  Ah, great.  Hello, General.  I understand that you don't want to mobilize all the doctors from the National Guard because it would take them from the civilian medical community.  But do you have some -- what is -- what is the equipment that you could give the community to -- to help in this crisis?  What do you have at your disposal, in terms of equipment?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So we -- we have all of the normal equipment for all of our units, whether they're engineer units, whether we need to set up tents, facilities, should we need -- you know, kitchens and cooking facilities, all of those types of abilities that exist throughout the National Guard, we have.

The medical equipment for the specific medical units, really, it's a relatively small contribution, I think, when you look at the scope and scale of what this might be across -- across the nation.  But, you know, all of the equipment from a military perspective, is available for the governors to be used.

There's trucks and there's helicopters and there's -- there's buses and there's all kinds of logistics capability, and plans and controls capability.  But what we bring is -- is units, units of people that can do whatever task a governor might need it to do.

Q:  Thank you, General.

STAFF:  OK, that's all we've got time for today.  Thank you for joining us today.

GEN. LENGYEL:  OK, thank you all very much.

Q:  Thank you.