What is the Texas National Guard and why does it matter in this year’s gubernatorial election?

A National Guard agent oversees an area where the border wall ends in Del Rio, on Nov. 7, 2021. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has defined his 2022 reelection campaign largely on his defense of the southern U.S.-Mexico border. In doing so, he has called up 10,000 members of the Texas National Guard — mostly volunteers who have left their civilian lives behind to fulfill their duty.

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Abbott, as the state’s top executive, serves as commander-in-chief of the state’s militia. The term “militia” may hark back to the days of the country’s revolution, but in our modern world, these troops serve a vital state function. A governor’s military powers are often not discussed as part of the election process, in favor of other prominent issues like education, health care, or taxes. With Abbott’s controversial border mission, Operation Lone Star, in plain view, voters may have more questions about what military role the governor has and how the national guard — a uniquely American institution — works. Here’s a guide to the state’s military role.

Each state and U.S. territory has a national guard, which serves a dual state-federal mission. There are more than 427,000 guards members across all units. Texas alone has about 23,000 members.

Governors typically deploy the guard to help with natural disaster recovery, law enforcement and, more recently, election security, including staffing polling places.

When activated for federal missions, the guard acts as reserve forces under their respective branches, Army and Air Force.

The Army National Guard deployed tens of thousands of troops in support of federal missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Much of their structure essentially mirrors that of regular active-duty army and were used as rotational forces.

The Air National Guard provides roughly half of the U.S. Air Force’s aeromedical evacuations, aerial refueling, combat communications and tactical airlift support. The Air National Guard has total responsibility for national air defense, essentially protecting the U.S. from airborne attacks or threats.

What is the Texas National Guard? 

The national guard dates back to 1636, predating the Continental Army before the founding of the United States. The Texas National Guard, as it is now, was officially approved in 1941 but traces its roots back to 1838.

Today, the guard is part of the Texas Military Department. The governor appoints the commanding officer, known as the adjutant general, who must be confirmed by the state Senate. In March, Abbott appointed Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer, replacing Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris.

The department has three separate military forces: the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard and the Texas State Guard.

[Operation Lone Star troops could owe feds tax money thanks to state’s payroll error]

The national guard is a dual state and federal force. The guard, like the regular Army, is made up of all volunteers. However, most active-duty soldiers are employed by the federal government full time, while members of the guard work other jobs and are required to train a minimum of one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

Jobs and duty positions within the guard are as diverse as they are in the regular military. From administrative, legal and medical work to aircraft maintenance, combat arms and systems training, members of the guard reach many corners of expertise. The training can consist of military occupational speciality refreshers to military drills and other activities, depending on each individual unit’s mission.

Before Operation Lone Star, many Texans may have encountered the national guard at food giveaways during the pandemic, offering medical support for vaccines or even providing additional support during the deadly winter freeze in 2021.

The national guards are under the command of not only the state governor, but also the president of the United States as needed for missions outside the scope of Texas — for example, units of the Texas guard were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan for Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, 25,000 national guard troops were ordered to provide security in Washington, D.C., for a peaceful transition of power of the presidential office. Of those troops, 1,200 were from Texas, and Abbott called them home after complaints that rest facilities were inadequate.

The state guard comprises the state-specific militia. Unlike the national guard, the state guard answers only to the Texas governor and the structure within the state military department. They provide support solely within the state of Texas and assist with emergency response, disaster relief, civil disorder and other state missions.

The state guard is relatively small compared to its national guard counterparts. About 2,200 personnel make up four battalions, roughly the size of a single, small active-duty brigade.

How has Gov. Greg Abbott used the guard? 

Abbott has used the guard in many traditional capacities, including natural disaster relief in the aftermath of both Hurricane Harvey and Winter Storm Uri. He also activated the guard to assist local law enforcement during statewide protests after George Floyd’s murder.

However, Abbott’s use of the guard for Operation Lone Star stands apart for its depth and breadth. Abbott declared a state of disaster at the border to activate 10,000 troops — about half the entire guard’s members.

Putting aside the number of troops, what makes Abbott’s deployment extraordinary is its ongoing status. In modern history, guards are typically deployed in short bursts. State active-duty status, for missions specific to the state, usually runs 15-60 days, according to averages provided by the National Guard.

Federal deployments, however, are usually a minimum of 12 months. The national guard troops ordered to cover the Operation Lone Star mission on state mission orders were deployed for 12 months with 72 hours’ notice.

How would Beto O’Rourke use the guard if elected? 

It’s not clear how Beto O’Rourke would use the guard outside its traditional scope, such as natural disaster relief. His campaign has provided few concrete details.

However, O’Rourke answered a Texas Tribune reporter’s question after a campaign event in Austin, saying he would use the state’s military “sparingly, and only when it’s a necessity.”

For the past year, O’Rourke has consistently and on multiple occasions condemned Abbott’s use of troops in border security as a political stunt, stating that “this spending $4 billion over the last two years to solve not a single thing — other than perhaps advanced the political career of Greg Abbott — deeply dishonors the service of those who wear the uniform.”

O’Rourke said he would address border security differently, coordinating more with the department of public safety, state police and some voluntary selective deployment of the national and state guard.

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