By Richard Eckstrom
One Saturday a month, hundreds of folks from across the state come together at sites in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville for a day of military-style training drills. They’re men and women of all ages, races, persuasions and walks of life, and they’re giving their time for a shared goal: to help their fellow South Carolinians during hurricanes, floods and other emergencies.
They’re members of the S.C. State Guard, an all-volunteer crisis-response force dedicated to keeping people safe when disaster strikes, and helping communities recover in the aftermath.
The 900-plus volunteers offer critical support to the S.C. National Guard and state and local first responders. They participate in search-and-rescue operations, direct traffic during evacuations, clear blocked roadways, deliver relief supplies, and maintain safety perimeters around downed power lines and contamination. And they do it without pay.
Though prior military service isn’t required, many State Guard members are very experienced Armed Forces retirees who continue to feel called to serve. I was among them; I volunteered in the State Guard for years – including three years as its commander – after nearly three decades in the Navy and Navy Reserves. I still have immense pride in the State Guard.
I wanted to bring attention to the vital role of the guard and its selfless volunteers because of some of the rhetoric surrounding recent developments out of Florida. A proposal by Florida’s governor to establish a guard similar to our own for humanitarian and disaster-response missions was framed in the most unfavorable and extreme terms possible by the governor’s foes, including foes in the media. They tossed out phrases like “hand-picked secret police.” There were some pretty bizarre conspiracy theories, i.e. that it’s all part of a plan to secede from the union.
The more outlandish prophecies came from the MSNBC network, which warned that guard volunteers would “wreak havoc on vulnerable people.” One of the network’s hosts said state guards are something a “tyrant” would need. (It’s probably worth noting that 22 states and Puerto Rico have state guards – including the MSNBC host’s home state of New York.)
Look, I get it. Florida’s governor is a conservative guy. The national media’s biases – and MSNBC’s in particular – are well-known. But only in today’s noxious, hyper partisan environment could something like establishing a state guard elicit such an over-the-top reaction. Whipping up hysteria may be good for ratings, but it ill-serves all of us.
It’d be a shame for this episode to create misperceptions about the honorable work these volunteers do. Even more so if it discourages people from joining.
The S.C. State Guard has been indispensable in responding to crises here and elsewhere. When Hurricane Hugo devastated the Lowcountry in 1989, guard volunteers with chainsaws opened some of the first passable eastbound traffic lanes within hours to begin a daunting relief effort. They traveled to New York to bolster the 9/11 relief effort, for which New York’s governor came to South Carolina to personally thank them.
After a 2005 train wreck in Graniteville caused a fatal chemical spill, guard volunteers spent weeks on-site assisting in the recovery effort. Later that year, they served in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. They were instrumental in responding to the historic flooding of 2015 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Again, these folks give up weekends without pay – even paying for uniforms and other expenses out of their own pockets – and without fanfare. They don’t seek money or recognition. They do it for the noblest of reasons: they care.
The State Guard is open to anyone ages 17-70. Those interested in joining call 803-253-4128 or visit sg.sc.gov.
Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state Comptroller. He’s president of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers, and Treasurers.