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Five Questions About The Missouri National Guard

The Missouri National Guard has been called up by Gov. Jay Nixon to assist local police with security after a grand jury decision is announced in the Michael Brown case. Typically, Guard troopers are called in to respond to emergencies, like natural disas
(Via Flickr/USACEPublicAffairs/By Carlos J. Lazo)
South Dakota National Guard soldiers build temporary ring dikes near in Fort Pierre, S.D., June 4. Water, pushed up from storm drains by the force of the rising Missouri River, was flooding the street and nearby buildings.

After he declared a state of emergency, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been coy about exactly when and how many National Guard troops will come to the St. Louis area ahead of a grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety also declined to give such "operational details" on Wednesday.

But to understand how the National Guard works generally, St. Louis Public Radio reached out to a department spokesman as well as a professor in Department of Military and Veterans Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What is the National Guard and who joins?

The Missouri National Guard, as described on its website, is a "family and community-based force of ready citizen soldiers/airmen" that defends and serves Missourians and the U.S. government.

The Department of Public Safety's communications director Mike O'Connell describes the National Guard in an email as "the oldest component of our nation's military." It goes back to the time of state militias, pre-1900s, according to Jim Craig, an associate teaching professor at UMSL.

"The Missouri National Guard is Missouri's army, and the governor has to declare a state of emergency or a special case to deploy them ... in the borders of Missouri," Craig said. "They are agencies of the state in the executive branch, and they do those military tasks that are assigned by the governor."

Before the early 1900s, there were no set standards for state militias to meet. So when presidents went to governors for the federal use of their troops, what they got varied widely. As a result, the federal government helped standardize the National Guard's training and procedures; in return, the U.S. can call on the Guard for national needs.

That "dual state and federal mission," O'Connell wrote, means the president can call up the National Guard to support war efforts and national emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina. But so, too, can the Missouri governor mobilize Guard members for state emergencies. O'Connell said in Missouri, that's typically for weather events.

"Since 9/11, the Missouri National Guard has supported more than 20,000 individual federal deployments," he said in an email. "In that same time period, approximately 11,000 have mobilized for state emergency missions."

About 11,500 troopers make up Missouri's National Guard. They train at about 50 bases, called armories, in the state for a few days each month, but most have full-time jobs outside of the Guard. Craig said generally, Guard members train at local bases.

Credit moguard.com

"The people from that neighborhood who sign up for the National Guard generally work in their own neighborhood, so National Guardsmen really are kind of the prototypical citizen-soldier," he said.

While O'Connell said that the Guard will not discuss where troopers responding to Nixon's most recent order are based, Craig said the military police unit deployed in August came from St. Clair.

What is the difference between the National Guard and the Army Reserves?

While it can be federally activated, the Missouri National Guard is a state organization, its troopers paid by the state. But when they are called on by federal authorities, they are paid by the U.S. government.

In contrast, the Army Reserves is a federal agency, with no specific attachment to any state. Army reservists are like any active duty soldier, though they train at a slower rate, according to Craig, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. They can be activated and are paid by the federal government.

National Guard troopers look very similar to reservists. Because of the standardization in the early 20th century, they are trained and equipped in many of the same ways as the federal armed services.

"They will look to anyone on the street just as any active duty soldier," Craig said. "They have the same uniform, same equipment, same military occupational specialties, same standards for promotion."

What kind of training do National Guard members go through?

National Guard soldiers and airmen train at least one weekend a month, two weeks each year. However, O'Connell said,many troopers complete additional training "to ensure they are ready for duty."

Members of the National Guard must meet the same standards as active duty soldiers for military skills and physical fitness, O'Connell said. They go through the same basic training and advanced skills training expected of active duty soldiers; their leaders go through the same schooling as their active force counterparts, Craig said.

"What our military accepts is a slightly lower level of proficiency by Guardsmen, but (there's) the ability to move up to where we want them very quickly because they are all fully trained and they are all fully resourced at the same level as the active force," Craig said.

Guard members also have specific military occupational specialties, honed to be "fully prepared to deploy overseas" if needed, O'Connell said. For example, O'Connell points to the Missouri National Guard's 220th Engineer Company that is in Afghanistan. Craig also noted the infantry and military policing units that train at an armory on South Kingshighway in St. Louis. Other specialties include: combat, aviation, and support and logistics.

"If and when we see these Guard soldiers deployed, many of them will have combat deployments of eight, nine, 12, 15 months under their belts, so these are experienced soldiers," Craig said.

Nixon will likely look to deploy units with the right specialties rather than the closest troops available, said Craig. During August's protests, he said, Nixon called on Guard units with "pretty successful and experienced" military policing skills, and it's likely he will look for that same training under this latest order.

"These are units who are experienced in policing activities, managing circulation in a contested area, doing guard work, and they have a good understanding of police tactics and procedures, though they use it on a military side," he said.

Why does Nixon want to call up the National Guard?

According to O'Connell, Nixon said the Guard is "well suited to provide security at command posts, fire stations and other locations" once a grand jury decision is announced. He said troopers will perform other duties as needed to free up local officers so that they can focus on "community policing and protecting constitutional rights."

But beyond that, O'Connell would not comment on what situations Guard members will serve in to provide safety, calling it an "operational detail."

While Nixon likely called in the Guard to take advantage of "the resources, the experience, the chain of command, the communications architecture, that a military unit will have," Craig said Nixon's order reflects the few options he has when it comes to local policing.

"He has two options: He has the Missouri Highway Patrol ... and the National Guard," Craig said. "When the governor wants to signal, 'This is important,' and the governor wants to ensure he has enough resources available, then he's going to call one of those two out. In this case, it looks like he's going to do both."

But Craig said a balance must be struck in using Guard troopers that look like active duty military forces for policing purposes.

"It is perfectly legal to use these forces, but sometimes in our society it doesn't feel right, and the army is supposed to be facing outward not inward," he said.

When will the Guard troops get here and how long will they stay?

Citing "operational detail," O'Connell declined to say when National Guard troops will arrive here. But Craig said Guard soldiers can mobilize in mere hours; in August, he said they arrived in a day.

Craig said troopers will likely arrive in waves, with a planning team arriving first. That unit will likely be followed by a receiving team to organize the rest of the arriving units.

Nixon's recent order declared a state of emergency for 30 days, and O'Connell said troopers will stay "on mission" until the governor releases them. Craig said the state of emergency can always be extended. In the meantime, Guard troopers will be away from family and their jobs.

"These guardsmen are good soldiers, they'll serve until the commander-in-chief tells them to stop serving," he said. "When the phone rings, you gotta go."