The National Guard is in a bit of a turnaround period. After two decades of high operational tempo during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that at times made Guard service as much of a commitment as active duty status, the component is taking stock of what it does and what it can offer.
At the top of the National Guard Bureau chief’s priority list is getting guardsmen covered by no-cost military health insurance, regardless of their duty status, as well as pay and training that would put them more on par with their active duty counterparts. Today, 60,000 Guardsmen are uninsured, receiving no health benefits from their civilian employers.
“There will be some cost to this, but I believe the lost readiness costs more than the price of that health care,” Army Gen. Hokanson told reporters on Tuesday, adding that providing the benefit “is ultimately the right thing to do, both morally and for the medical readiness of our force.”
A bipartisan group of senators introduced the Healthcare For Our Troops Act in December, which would make Tricare Reserve Select, an insurance plan already available to National Guard and Reserve troops for a fee, available at no cost.
Duty status reform is another top priority, which would streamline the dozens of different schemes for pay and benefits accrual guardsmen are subject to while on active duty orders, resulting in many guardsmen receiving less compensation than their active duty counterparts.
“We spend weeks, months, even years away from our families, but to be side-by-side performing the exact same mission and the same duties and not be treated the same is something that needs to be resolved,” Hokanson said.
With an eye toward keeping up with the active component, the Guard is also planning more large exercises, more training rotations and modernization of its brigades and divisions to more closely mirror the active duty Army.
“This will keep us seamlessly interoperable with the Army, make rotations more predictable and give our guardsmen more leadership opportunities,” Hokanson said. “Most of all, it will ensure we are ready whenever our nation calls.”
That’s also the aim of a forthcoming component-wide fitness challenge.
“Starting in March, we’re instituting a monthly fitness challenge for our force,” he said. “The challenges emphasize not only exercise, but things like nutrition and total fitness to encourage our soldiers, airmen and their families to focus on taking care of themselves, becoming more resilient, building individual readiness and hopefully having fun in the process.”
These moves put the National Guard more in line with the active duty Army and Air Force at a time when their missions have started to look more separate. Regular deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan characterized both active and Guard service between 2001 and 2021, but these days the Guard is spending more time on domestic mobilizations.
For example, tens of thousands of guardsmen activated to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, many of them spending months working in hospitals or staffing public testing and vaccination centers.
“And so what we’re really trying to do is encourage our Guardsmen and our trainers at every single level of leadership to make sure that we do focus on readiness, because we don’t know how much time we’re going to have to prepare,” Hokanson said. “So everything we can do at the individual level, and the small-unit level to build that readiness, so that we’re ready when called, or if it’s a large-scale mobilization ― we’ve got that foundational readiness build so we can decrease the amount of organizational readiness we need to build.”
These moves also serve a dual purpose, at a time when the entire military is finding it harder and harder to recruit.
“It’s really kind of twofold. Obviously, the first one is, they make a significant investment in giving up a large part of their life to go through their training and then give up their one weekend a month ― and oftentimes it exceeds that,” Hokanson said. “So we want to make sure that whenever we call them, they can step on the field and play their position. And if they’ve got the medical care, they can do preventive care, or if they get injured at any time, that they’re ready to go and medically ready.”
But at the same time, Hokanson added, pay and benefits are a big recruiting and retention tool.
“When you look at the current environment right now a lot of things that we traditionally relied on to encourage folks to join the Guard ― educational benefits, training, those type of things ― many corporations now do that as well … so we need to keep in touch and in tune with that environment to provide those things that encourage people to join our organization and then stay in,” Hokanson said.
“One thing that is nice is once we get folks in the organization, our retention rates are extremely high. But the key is to getting them in that front door, and showing them what we have to offer.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.