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We Shouldn’t Have to Rely on the National Guard for Public Services

As the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to spread, hospitals across the country have reported critical staff shortages. In my home state of New Mexico, nearly half of all hospitals are understaffed, and more could be soon.

The U.S. health care system has buckled under the strain of the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a peak in early January, nearly two years in. According to the American Hospital Association, “we’re facing a national emergency” as health care facilities simply don’t have enough workers to keep up with these surges.

With worker shortages now plaguing hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities, states have turned to the National Guard for relief. So too have school districts, child care facilities, and communities reeling from natural disasters.

Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, recently called on the Guard to fill in as public school bus drivers. In fact, school district leaders in at least 11 states have turned to the Guard to shuttle students to school amid acute bus driver shortages.

New Mexico recently became the first state in the nation to recruit Guard troops to fill in as substitute teachers and daycare workers, but even that’s not meeting demand.

As schools struggle to stay open, some school administrators are covering custodial duties while parent volunteers fill in as cafeteria workers, classroom support, and COVID-19 testing aides. Even New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham is stepping into the classroom as a substitute.

Meanwhile, there’s the increasingly constant need for disaster response. Last year, Guard members were deployed across the West to support overstretched firefighting crews. And this past January, the Virginia Guard deployed members to support the winter storm response.

According to the National Guard Bureau, more than 19,000 National Guard members are now mobilized across the country to support pandemic-related relief efforts. At other times, up to 47,000 have been deployed to meet pandemic demand.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, National Guard men and women in each of the 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia have been on the front lines,” said Army General Daniel R. Hokanson, the Guard’s bureau chief. “We continue to work closely with the states to ensure” that we’re “meeting their needs.”

Certainly, National Guard members have stepped up heroically to serve their communities. But it’s worth asking: Why has the Guard become the “swiss army knife” to meet states’ emergency needs?

To put it another way: Time and again, why is it only the military that has extra resources to go around? The simplest answer is we’ve spent decades ramping up our military spending while letting these other priorities stagnate.

For what taxpayers spent on military contractors alone last year, we could have instead provided health care for 25 million low-income adults and 38 million children. We could have funded over a million elementary school teachers. And we could have launched over a million clean energy jobs — all with money to spare.

Instead, communities are often left seeking help from the military to fill these roles.

Meanwhile, military spending is only going up. Congress recently passed a $778 billion military budget bill — a peacetime record.

All that spending is supposed to make us safer. But as critical public services reach their breaking point, it’s clear that short-changing our health, our children, and our planet has left us less safe.

As the pandemic and climate crisis are showing us, real security means divesting from excessive military spending and prioritizing the things we actually need to flourish — so maybe next time there won’t be a crisis.