From riots to COVID-19, record-setting year marks dramatic shift in role of National Guard

Ryan Raiche & Joe Augustine
Updated: December 17, 2020 10:14 PM
Created: December 17, 2020 07:11 PM

From testing for COVID-19, to treating patients with bedsores in staff-depleted nursing homes, to backing up police as riots escalated in the Twin Cities, it has been a record-setting year for the Minnesota National Guard.

Gov. Tim Walz has called on the guard for help at an unrelenting pace this year, including the largest domestic deployment in the guard’s history after the death of George Floyd last May.

'Operation Safety Net': National Guard could be deployed indefinitely while officers in Floyd case stand trial

And as 5 INVESTIGATES first reported on Wednesday night, the guard is now preparing for another potentially massive deployment early next year in anticipation of civil unrest during the trial of the four Minneapolis Police Officers charged in connection to Floyd’s death.

Operation Safety Net would mark the fourth deployment in response to unrest in the Twin Cities in less than 12 months and continue a remarkable shift in how the guard is leaned on by state leaders.

“We're taking on a lot more than we have in the past,” said Col. Scott Rohweder, who is in charge of Operation Safety Net.

In a normal year, civilian guard members work less than a thousand days combined. This year, that number has exploded to more than 106,000 days and counting.

From riots to COVID-19, airmen like Lt. Col. Chris Wolf are being pulled in every direction. 

“I think it's proven that we really are relevant in more ways than we ever thought,” said Wolf, who is currently acting as the medical expert, coordinating the citizen-soldiers and airmen on the ground.

More than 600 troops are currently filling in at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state because of staffing shortages.

“There's a critical need that we're seeing. And, and I can't minimize the fact that these facilities have true staffing needs,” he said. “Certainly never in my wildest dreams did I figure I would be, in essence, fighting a war against a virus.”

Wolf described how the guard had to adjust their tactics during the COVID-19 missions -- especially their appearance. Men and women walking into a nursing home in full military gear gave residents and staff the wrong impression at first.

“We saw people peeking out of their windows, they thought the guard was there to take over the facility,” Wolf said. “So we quickly pivoted.”

Guard members now blend in with staff, wearing mostly hospital scrubs.

But that perception of the guard is driven in part because military troops have been seen in Minnesota more than ever before.

Tim MacArthur, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia whose expertise focuses on the role of the military, says repeated deployments create a delicate balance.

“As Americans, we're not used to seeing soldiers with weapons, outside of military installations,” MacArthur said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. “I think you really need to step back and take a 50,000 foot view of it and see how this is going to look to people that aren't familiar with soldiers and the military or the or the National Guard.”

Despite receiving the call more than ever before, Rohweder says he’s not worried about the optics of the guard’s growing presence, citing the positive feedback it has received throughout the year.

“The citizens of Minnesota greatly appreciate and respect the Minnesota National Guard,” he said.

Rohweder’s next mission may include a deployment similar in size to what was activated last May, but it could also be for an unprecedented length of time.

According to internal plans obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES, Operation Safety Net potentially calls for an indefinite deployment for thousands of soldiers during the trial of Derek Chauvin, Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao.

“It is a big deal,” Rohweder said. “It's one of those things where we have to be prepared for that kind of operation and change the paradigm of our thinking to make sure that we're prepared at any moment's notice to activate that kind of large scale force.”

After the civil unrest last summer, 5 INVESTIGATES asked then Adjutant General Jon Jensen about the guard’s role moving forward.

In first interview since deployment, head of Minnesota National Guard sees BLM as a 'humanitarian movement' the guard stands for

“We should always, always, always use the guard in a law enforcement role in a very absolutely last chance effort,” Jensen said at the time. “So no, I don’t advocate to expand our role in or mission in that area.”

Rohweder insists the guard is still a last resort as a backup to law enforcement, adding that this operation is being led by Minneapolis Police.

A police spokesperson confirmed they started planning Operation Safety Net shortly after the department’s resources were exhausted during the riots last summer.

Those resources have been depleted even more since then.

“The Minnesota National Guard can help alleviate that,” Rohweder said.


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