These National Guard members also serve in Congress. Now they’re fighting COVID-19

Max Rose has been deployed with his unit to build field hospitals in New York, but he’s not the only lawmaker who pulls double duty

Members of the Maryland National Guard help run a temporary COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of FedEx Field on March 31. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Members of the Maryland National Guard help run a temporary COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of FedEx Field on March 31. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 4, 2020 at 8:00am

Max Rose will be setting up field hospitals. Michael Waltz helped run a testing site in an empty parking lot. They’re among those facing the coronavirus pandemic with a distinctive job title: They’re members of Congress, but they also serve in the National Guard.

With Congress out for an extended recess until at least April 20, lawmakers are turning to work in their districts, and for some that includes preparing to deploy. Eight current House members are soldiers or airmen in the National Guard, and two so far have put on their uniforms to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Rose announced he would deploy Wednesday with his unit in New York. The Democrat, who represents Staten Island and a portion of Brooklyn, will act as an operations officer in his home city, where emergency rooms are overflowing. That means he could find himself crisscrossing his own 11th District, helping the same people who voted him into office (and the people who didn’t).

This time, it will be a different kind of campaign. “You won’t be hearing from me nearly as much because I’ll be activated in the military,” he said in a video message posted on Twitter. His duties will include working to “build up field hospitals and increase beds,” according to Rose’s communications director, Jonas Edwards-Jenks. “Everything is so day-to-day right now so he will be going and doing whatever is needed.” While the length of the mission is “still TBD,” he’s expecting it to last at least “for the coming weeks.” 

Meanwhile, a colleague across the aisle took on a shorter assignment. Waltz was on hand at FedEx Field on Tuesday to support a newly opened coronavirus testing site in the stadium’s parking lot, where patients can drive up to get a swab. Guardsmen had been there for days, erecting tents weighed down by sandbags, but Waltz was on temporary duty. A colonel on the planning staff (he was just promoted from lieutenant colonel last month), the Republican has a background in special forces and serves with the Maryland National Guard instead of in his home state of Florida. “I am going on when it makes sense, on temporary orders, to help with planning, to help with coordination,” he said in a phone interview. “Right now I’m doing that back and forth.”

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Other members of Congress are signaling readiness. When Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard dropped her presidential bid on March 19, she highlighted her role as a major in the guard. “I feel that the best way I can be of service at this time is to continue to work for the health and well-being of the people of Hawaii and our country in Congress, and to stand ready to serve in uniform should the Hawaii National Guard be activated,” she said. 

Adam Kinzinger, who previously was deployed on a mission to the southern border in February 2019, hasn’t heard anything, “but if/when he does, he will comply in accordance with the law and his orders,” Kinzinger’s communications director, Maura Gillespie, said in an email. The Illinois Republican flies reconnaissance aircraft, conducting aerial surveillance.

What about someone like Steve Stivers, who has climbed the ranks over more than three decades in the Ohio National Guard to become a brigadier general? He hasn’t been given a notification and doesn’t expect one, said his spokeswoman, AnnMarie Graham. As in many states, the governor has activated a small portion of guardsmen, who are doing things like distributing food and scouting locations for makeshift hospitals.

Goodbye to the campaign trail

For any citizen soldier, deploying with the guard means putting your day job on hold. For members of Congress in an election year, that goes doubly for campaigning. A Defense Department directive forbids active duty personnel from “open and active campaigning,” which includes attending events and doing interviews. 

Gabbard, for example, was cut off from her presidential campaign for two weeks in August 2019 when her unit went to Indonesia for a joint training exercise. “Some people are telling me, ‘Gosh, this is a terrible time to be leaving the campaign. Can’t you find a way out of it?’ You know, that’s not really what this is about,” she told CBS News at the time. 

It’s a question Rose might be getting too, since his reelection fight promises to be a tight one. Roll Call election analyst Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-Up, and the district is one that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 by nearly 10 percentage points. When the tough-talking Democrat — who is often spotted sans tie, with a shirt open at the collar — defeated Republican incumbent Dan Donovan in 2018, it was seen as a major upset.

Rep. Max Rose, seen here in 2019, was activated with his New York National Guard Unit in early April. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rose already has a required disclaimer about military service in place on his website. “Use of photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement by the Department of the Army or Department of Defense,” it reads. And now that he’s been activated during the pandemic, his campaign will cease major operations, he said, as it must. His reelection-specific social media accounts have been silent so far in April. (Other campaigns have kept up a social media presence in the past by tweeting signed messages from surrogates, for example.) While such breaks can put politicians behind, earned media can be a bonus. When Rose announced his reelection bid, supporters waved signs reading “Max Rose Gets S#!@ Done” — a message that could only be reinforced by building a field hospital during a sweeping public health crisis.

Members miss work during more mundane times, too. Kinzinger, Mississippi’s Trent Kelly and South Carolina’s William R. Timmons IV have all missed votes this Congress on separate occasions due to their service obligations with the National Guard, per notifications in the Congressional Record. The branch requires regular “drill,” training periods that amount to one weekend per month plus a two-week period each year. 

Knowing the risks

Lawmakers who join their guard units are well aware of the risks, said John Goheen, communications director of the National Guard Association of the United States. “We just had a National Guard captain die,” he said. Douglas Linn Hickok of New Jersey, a physician’s assistant and captain who was not activated at the time, became the first servicemember to die of COVID-19 on March 30. And a guard member recently tested positive in Maryland, prompting others to quarantine.

“His personal risk is just part of his calling,” Goheen said of Rose, who enlisted in the Army in 2010, served in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader, and was wounded when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. “These are the kind of people we have in the guard. Our people want to be out there.”

Policy, meet military service

The latest thing Rose and Waltz did in Washington, legislatively speaking, was show up for a vote on a $2.3 trillion stimulus package meant to dull the economic impact of COVID-19. Serving on the ground with the guard gives them a different view of the crisis.

It’s not the first time lawmakers have participated in missions directly related to bills moving in Congress. Kinzinger was deployed to the southern border in February 2019 and shortly thereafter voted against a measure condemning Trump’s emergency declaration at the southern border. He cited his experience flying aerial surveillance missions with his Air National Guard unit, watching for border-crossers from the sky, as one thing that made up his mind. 

“Do you think it’s constitutional?” asked “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, referring to the president’s maneuver to circumvent Article I of the Constitution and devote federal funds to a border wall without congressional approval. 

“I do,” Kinzinger replied. “If this was just about immigration I would disagree. I do think this is a security threat. It’s a security threat with the amount of drugs coming over the border and the human trafficking that I’ve seen.”

The Republican also fielded criticism at the time for speaking out against the man who had deployed him, tweeting his disapproval when the governor of Wisconsin pulled guard troops back from the border. (While Kinzinger is from Illinois, his unit is based in Wisconsin.) A review later cleared Kinzinger of violating military rules, finding that he was "not speaking as a commissioned officer but as a U.S. congressman,” Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Joe Trovato told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Rep. Michael Waltz has a background in special forces and serves in the Maryland National Guard. Above, he gives a television interview in the Capitol in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

That example highlights the balancing act required of guard members who are also public figures. It’s a challenge that Waltz, for one, acknowledges. Blurring the line between lawmaker and servicemember may be somewhat inevitable, but Waltz sees benefits that go both ways. His service at the temporary COVID-19 testing site in Maryland is hard to separate from his other duties.   

“I understand the legislation, how it came about, what the intent was. I can bring that strategic knowledge to serving in the guard and help them with the broader context and at the same time vice versa,” he told CQ Roll Call. “That on-the-ground experience, that dirt under your fingernails greatly helps inform us, inform me anyway, when we’re crafting legislation.”

An Armed Services Committee member, Waltz said his service is shaping his approach to upcoming issues. It’s made him acutely aware that many guardsmen during the pandemic will get paid under Title 32, the code allowing a state’s governor to activate its guard with federal funds but remain under the control of the governor. The president has approved Title 32 activation in several states so far.

Waltz likened the situation to his tenure advising Vice President Dick Cheney. Waltz regularly went on rotations advising counterterrorism strategies in the White House, followed by deployments as a special forces officer to Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

“I had to be one of the only people in Washington that actually had to go do the strategy that I recommended,” he said. “So you'd better make sure the strategy was right, because it was my rear end on the line.”

Where they serve

  • Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii: Hawaii Army National Guard
  • Trent Kelly, R-Miss.: Mississippi Army National Guard
  • Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.: Wisconsin Air National Guard
  • Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss.: Mississippi Army National Guard
  • Max Rose, D-N.Y.: New York Army National Guard
  • Steve Stivers, R-Ohio: Ohio Army National Guard
  • William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C.: South Carolina Air National Guard
  • Michael Waltz, R-Fla.: Maryland Army National Guard