Support our mission
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new push to revive the Florida State Guard has drawn fresh attention to these types of defense forces that have decades of history across the U.S.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new push to revive the Florida State Guard has drawn fresh attention to these types of defense forces that have decades of history across the U.S. (Al Diaz, Miami Herald/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new push to revive the Florida State Guard has drawn fresh attention to these types of defense forces that have decades of history across the U.S.

Their main goal is to serve as a backup in safeguarding communities during disasters, but DeSantis’ proposal still drew an outcry. Critics slammed the idea, worried the governor instead would build a militia that acts at his whim. DeSantis’ supporters praised the plan, calling it an opportunity to strengthen emergency responses.

Barry Stentiford, author of the book “America’s Home Guard,” doesn’t find Florida’s plan so controversial. If done properly, Florida’s State Guard could be on par with other such groups across the U.S., said Stentiford, a retired reserve colonel who works for the Army as a professor of history at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies in Kansas.

Of the state guards across the U.S., “they are not all identical,” Stentiford says. “Some of them are very much skeleton forces, and others have become more and more adjunct to support the National Guard with various things.”

Here is a through-the-years look at some of the highlights — and lowlights — of other state guards’ performance across the U.S.

The guards’ boondoggles

Some state guards indeed have dealt with unfortunate moments that eventually led to their downfall.

According to Stentiford’s “America’s Home Guard,” the State Guard in Utah began holding unauthorized war games in the state’s western deserts decades ago and practicing “assassinations” at the fairgrounds.

In order to circumvent prohibitions on firearms training, units formed gun clubs and created intelligence files on potential “subversives” to be watched if war came, and created their own “elite” forces, Stentiford wrote.

“A far more dangerous incident occurred during the fall of 1985, when a group of men wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons charged from the brush and surprised a group of Girl Scouts on a picnic,” he wrote, citing a 1987 news article in the Salt Lake City Tribune. According to the newspaper story, weapons may have been fired.

A cavalry unit even bought themselves Stetson hats, adopting the image of the First Cavalry Division made famous by actor Robert Duvall in the 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now,” Stentiford wrote. “Some of the unit’s more eccentric members began referring to themselves as the ‘governor’s own little army,’ although the governor knew nothing of the force,” he wrote.

Also part of the problem were its members included white supremacists with ties to the Aryan Nations Church in Idaho, convicted felons and some people with histories of mental illness, according to a news article from The Associated Press from 1990.

“Wackos, quite frankly,” said the National Guard’s adjutant general in a 1987 interview. “They want to go out and play Rambo.”

Utah’s state guard reorganized in 1987.

Another group that drew attention years ago was the Texas State Guard. In 2015, Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the State Guard to monitor a Navy SEAL/Green Beret joint training exercise in what became known as Jade Helm 15.

It was in response to an inaccurate right-wing conspiracy theory that President Obama’s Yankee Army was really using the empty Walmart parking lots to prepare for a future state of martial law and take political prisoners. The Texas Tribune reported that Abbott took some criticism for getting the State Guard involved, and while Democrats questioned whether he trusts the military, some Republicans spoke out in support of the exercise. One Republican legislator, though, accused Abbott of “pandering to idiots.”

Abbott justified the decision, saying it was “important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon.”

The guards’ call to action

State guard members often are volunteers who consider their service as a patriotic calling. Texas, New York, California and Puerto Rico have the four largest guards in the country, Stentiford said.

The Texas State Guard’s most recent mission happened in March last year, when Abbott launched Operation Lone Star “to deter and repel criminal activities along the state’s southern border,” the state guard’s staff told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “In addition to the state’s current border operations and the COVID-19 response mission, Texas State Guardsmen regularly respond to severe weather events and a myriad of state active duty missions,” according to the agency.

Originally created during World War I, and more extensively during World War II, state guards were meant to jump into service when the National Guard was off fighting.

Today, they may attract professionals such as “doctors, nurses, engineers” who could best deal with a disaster, Stentiford said. “Most of them are really good people who want to help and the idea they want to clobber people is awful,” he said.

The Mississippi State Guard, which assisted during Hurricane Katrina, is so eager to be there that “members pay out of their own pockets to serve. This includes uniforms, travel, and training exercises,” said spokesman Andrew Bryson.

In 2019, “we trained preparing for the worst-case scenario in the event of a catastrophic earthquake. Members in any state with a state defense force can live in peace knowing there are men and women willing to respond when residents are going through tremendous tragedy,” Bryson said.

Some agencies, such as the Washington State Guard, have fewer than 100 people. The guardsmen buy their own uniforms and other personal supplies, according to spokesman Carl Chatfield.

The Ohio Defense Force has positions open for anyone over age 17 regardless of physical limitations, skill level or experience. Past missions have included a flood rescue and recovery in 1990, and members regularly provide security detail and traffic control.

In New York, the State Guard was organized in World War II after the New York National Guard got called away to fight. The state guard attracted people who were “too young to be in the Army or too old,” said agency spokesman Eric Durr.

They were given rifles, and they guarded bridges over the Hudson River. With National Guard off in Europe fighting the Nazis or in the Pacific fighting the Japanese, the State Guard became “the National Guard’s National Guard,” essentially the reservist backup.

In 1944, they worked blizzard relief, “carrying bays of hay to cows stuck in fields,” he said. But “nobody signed up to give hay to cows, they wanted to stop the Nazis. They were patriotic and wanted to do their duty.”

The agency grew and then shrunk. These days, although the New York Guard is authorized to have 800 people, there are now 353 currently serving, training one weekend a month.

They learn how to run a command post, such as for a COVID-19 vaccination site, and the proper way to run a chainsaw if they get sent on a debris clearance mission.

State guard members who have backgrounds as lawyers have volunteered to write up wills and powers of attorney for National Guard soldiers who were deployed to fight in Iraq, Durr said. “They work for pizza generally,” he said, when in training.

When they are mobilized by the governor for state active duty, they are paid.

Plan for Florida’s guard advances

If revived, Florida’s state guard would aid in emergency-response efforts as a result of a hurricane, natural disasters and other emergencies in Florida, and “assist in maintaining law and order during state emergencies,” according to DeSantis’ office.

Although originally estimated that DeSantis would ask the state Legislature for $3.5 million to reactivate the Florida State Guard and train some 200 volunteers, his budget now provides $5.4 million for the civilian volunteer force for 400 members, according to Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary. Details will be finalized during the ongoing legislative session, according Pushaw.

Pushaw has said that “the Florida State Guard, like other State Guards, would support the National Guard and would be trained and authorized to do the same duties as the National Guard.” That includes “protective equipment and being armed if necessary.

“That means troops do not carry weapons for every activation, because that is not always needed, but they do have the necessary training and authorization, and they can be armed if the situation warrants it.”

lhuriash@sunsentinel.com

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Visit sun-sentinel.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up