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Guard members in California live in the state and have civilian jobs such as teachers, carpenters and police officers. They are called upon to help during disasters. Photo by Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio Guard members in California live in the state and have civilian jobs such as teachers, carpenters and police officers. They are called upon to help during disasters. Photo by Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Guard members in California live in the state and have civilian jobs such as teachers, carpenters and police officers. They are called upon to help during disasters. Photo by Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols March 27, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • The California National Guard has a humanitarian mission in its fight against the coronavirus, including helping at food banks

  • The Guard includes members who live in the state, such as teachers, carpenters and police officers

  • Guard officials said their mission does not include imposing martial law or enforcing quaranties

There’s confusion — along with some manufactured fear — about the role of the National Guard in the nation’s fight against the coronavirus. 

Many have posted videos on social media of tanks and Humvees rolling into towns while others have spread false rumors about the Guard leading "COVID-19 quarantine teams" and imposing military law. 

"Coronavirus ( Covid-19 ) or War? Getting Ready for Martial Law?" reads one blog’s alarmist headline. 

To answer questions and clear up misinformation, PolitiFact California took a closer look at the National Guard, including the role it plays in our state, who makes up the Guard, who’s in charge of it and more. 

What Is The National Guard? 

A unique part of the military, the National Guard serves both overseas and in communities across the nation. It has about 450,000 members, with about 30,000 currently deployed on international missions. It responds to domestic disasters such as wildfires, floods and hurricanes, reconstruction efforts and works to stop drug trafficking. 

Any state governor or the president can call up the Guard during an emergency. About 10,700 Guard members were responding to the COVID-19 crisis as of this week across all 50 states

Each state has its own Guard made up of people who live in local communities. They train part-time while holding civilian jobs such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, carpenters and police officers. National Guard members are "our fellow citizens, not Imperial Stormtroopers," Kori Schake, an expert on civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, told Vox.

The California National Guard is made up of three major components: The California Air National Guard, the California Army National Guard and the California State Guard. 

What Is The Guard’s Role In California During The Coronavirus Outbreak? 

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom activated up to 500 California National Guard airmen and soldiers on a "humanitarian support" mission, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, spokesperson for California National Guard.

Specifically, Newsom deployed the Guard to fill vacancies at food banks, many of which lost volunteers due to coronavirus restrictions.

Earlier this month, Guard members helped doctors screen passengers as they left the Grand Princess, the cruise ship that docked in Oakland after crew and passengers became infected with COVID-19. 

Does The National Guard Plan To Enforce Martial Law? 

Asked about the viral spread of social media posts claiming the National Guard would enforce military law or help quarantine individuals, Shiroma stressed the Guard has a humanitarian mission in California. 

"There is no truth to this rumor that people are conspiring, that governors are planning, that anyone is conspiring to use the National Guard, mobilized or not, Title 32 or state, to do military action to enforce shelter in place or quarantines," Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters on a recent conference call, according to the Military Times

Lengyel added that, in an extreme case where a governor might enforce a quarantine, Guard members would likely be paired up with local civilian law enforcement to augment their efforts, the Military Times reported.

Who Is In Charge Of The National Guard In California? 

While both the president and governors have the authority to deploy the National Guard, members in California are currently under Newsom’s direction.

"We’re under the leadership of the governor right now. He’s our commander in chief." Shiroma said. 

Lengyel, the National Guard Bureau chief, told NPR that local command is preferrable.

"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 the — you can get quicker the resource you need to fix the problem," he said.

Who Is Paying For The National Guard? 

President Trump on Sunday said the federal government would pay for the full cost of National Guard troops in New York, California and Washington state. He said the troops would be managed by governors in the individual states. 

"It enables the governor to provide robust National Guard support to the state," Trump said at a White House press conference. "So, they’re going to have control over the National Guard. These are incredible people that are being sent."

Where Else Has The National Guard Helped In California? 

Shiroma, the California National Guard spokesman, said members have helped the state recover from devastating wildfires, such as the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018, and assisted with Oroville Dam evacuations in 2017, when portions of the structure crumbled, threatening hundreds of thousands of residents nearby. 

"The California National Guard was there for that specific mission," Shiroma said of the evacuations. "And we will always be here for the state of California to offer that protection for our citizens when they are in times of need." 

The California National Guard has also responded to high-profile riots in the state. 

During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, more than 9,800 California National Guard troops were dispatched to restore order, according to CNN

Decades earlier, nearly 14,000 Guard troops responded to the Watts riots, which lasted six days in August 1965, also in Los Angeles. At the end, 34 people were dead.

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Our Sources

Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, spokesperson, California National Guard, phone interview March 26, 2020

General Joseph Lengyel, tweet, March 25, 2020

Army National Guard, Guard FAQs, accessed March 2020

NPR, Chief Of National Guard Says It Is Ready For Coronavirus Crisis, March 23, 2020

Vox, What National Guard troops do when deployed to help with coronavirus, March 24, 2020

Military Times, Trump provides federal funds for National Guard in three states; they keep control, federal government foots bill as COVID-19 cases rise, March 23, 2020

Popular Mechanics, Army Tanks on Trains Aren't a Sign of Impending Martial Law, March 24, 2020

PolitiFact, No, the military doesn’t have COVID-19 quarantine team Humvees in Michigan, March 25, 2020

Entertane News, National Guard Tanks Arrive in San Diego, CA, accessed March 2020

Gov. Gavin Newsom, press release, March 20, 2020

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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Explaining National Guard’s Role In California During Coronavirus (It’s Not Enforcing Martial Law)