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Research Questions

  1. Have recent National Guard mission demands increased relative to prior years? If so, are those increased demands likely to continue?
  2. What are some of the challenges that the recent pace of operations has created for Guard members and their families?
  3. Are there other stressors in addition to the pace of operations?
  4. What service and support programs are designed to address these challenges?
  5. How are National Guard leaders monitoring operations and stress on personnel?

The National Guard is a dual-missioned armed force available to conduct federal missions as a component of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force and state missions under the control of governors. Since the drawdown from Afghanistan that began in 2020, the pace of National Guard overseas operations as a key organization in the Department of Defense (DoD) has declined, though the National Guard maintains a relatively intense mission load. However, domestic demands seem to have been much higher than in past decades, with DoD and the states intensively tasking the National Guard (its Air and Army components) to respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, civil unrest, border operations, and natural disasters.

This high demand for National Guard support of domestic operations has raised concerns about potential impacts for Guard members and their families and about a variety of possible personnel management challenges (including potential retention and recruiting issues) for the National Guard. In this report, the authors develop a picture of the National Guard's recent mission demands, identify the challenges that the pace of operations has created for Guard members and their families, and explore what service and support programs are in place to address these challenges.

The authors explore these issues using a three-pronged approach: reviewing publicly available articles and reports, holding interviews with National Guard senior leader stakeholders and subject-matter experts, and reviewing existing internal National Guard documents provided by the interviewees.

Key Findings

  • An increase in domestic missions has led to an increased personnel tempo for some personnel. Family separations and the bureaucratic challenges that come from switching among authorized duty statuses add considerable stress on Guard members.
  • Although recruiting is a problem, it is not unique to the National Guard. Retention does not seem to be a problem so far, but it might be in the future. The numbers of personnel needed or utilized at the state level are not visible, but some states may be stretched thin.
  • Atrophying skills is a potential concern, given the high pace of operations and limited time for training. Although having access to automated and self-paced trainings is good, there are also internet access issues.
  • Although many people enjoy the remote work lifestyle, there are fewer opportunities for interpersonal connections. Guard members may be more dispersed than in the past, traveling farther for drilling, which leads to increased commute burden.
  • Lacking access to health care providers is a key source of stress for Guard personnel: Few doctors accept DoD's military health insurance program, TRICARE, and some accept only a few patients under TRICARE. Access to specialists is limited in remote locations, and mental health care is particularly hard to find. Transition across duty statuses causes issues for health care, and there are issues with continuity of care.
  • Guard members have difficulty obtaining child care when their needs are infrequent, irregular, or unpredictable; on the weekends; or if they live in remote locations.

Recommendations

  • The National Guard Bureau (NGB) should investigate workforce stress in the broader National Guard population, including (1) conducting follow-on focus groups and surveys to confirm whether the broader workforce's views on top stressors are consistent with leadership's understanding of the issues, (2) exploring members' views on stressors, and (3) gathering longitudinal data on the impacts of the full range of stress prevention and mitigation programs on workforce stressors.
  • The NGB should investigate improving service member access to care and well-being services and support by (1) addressing child care access as a stressor, (2) identifying pros and cons of solutions to address the health care access issues and gaps in coverage, and (3) understanding and addressing interpersonal disconnectedness.
  • The NGB should investigate tracking and mitigating personnel tempo to (1) better account for related state-workload stressors and (2) explore whether existing processes for defining National Guard staffing requirements (at both the state and federal levels) are capturing and addressing fluctuations in workload demands.

This research was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Personnel, Readiness, and Health Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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