Early last summer, complaining that Washington had failed to provide adequate staffing for Florida’s National Guard, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that for the first time in 75 years he was activating the State Guard, a force of volunteers that could respond to hurricanes and other public emergencies.
But the deployment this spring has been mired in internal turmoil, with some recruits complaining that what was supposed to be a civilian disaster response organization had become heavily militarized, requiring volunteers to participate in marching drills and military-style training sessions on weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
At least 20 percent of the 150 people initially accepted into the program dropped out or were dismissed, state officials acknowledged, including a retired Marine captain who filed a false imprisonment complaint against Guard sergeants with the local sheriff after he got into a dispute with instructors and was forcibly escorted off the site.
Several of those who left and spoke to The New York Times said they objected to the direction the organization was taking and either quit or were fired when they tried to voice their concerns.
“Gov. DeSantis had the foresight to say, ‘I have this tool in my pocket, all I have to do is take it out and use it,’” Brian Newhouse, a retired Navy officer who helped recruit the first batch of volunteers, said in an interview. “His intention was a disaster response force solely for the citizens of the state of Florida.”
Mr. Newhouse said he spent months recruiting to help lead a program he had understood would be a civilian-style disaster response organization, but arrived at training on June 1 to find out that he was no longer a supervisor, and that the program’s orientation had changed significantly. He said he raised objections on the first day of training and was abruptly escorted out.
“There’s nothing wrong with the military, but it’s not the gold standard for an emergency response organization,” Mr. Newhouse said. “We did not, above all else, want to be characterized as a militia.”
At least 17 other states operate State Guards, but Florida had disbanded its organization in the aftermath of World War II, in 1947. Mr. DeSantis announced its reinstatement as he was preparing a presidential election bid, approving a broad directive to “protect and defend threats to public safety” and provisions that allow some members of the Guard to carry weapons.
The vague language of the mission mandate has prompted concerns from civil rights advocates that the new Guard, which includes a specialized law enforcement unit, could be asked to undertake police-style operations for purposes that are not clearly defined by law. The governor’s office said one of the Guard’s missions would be “to ensure Florida remains fully fortified to respond to not only natural disasters, but also to protect its people and borders from illegal aliens and civil unrest.”
Mr. DeSantis, to whom the new State Guard reports directly, has suggested that concerns over the organization’s future role are unwarranted.
“If you turned on NBC, it was ‘DeSantis is raising an army, and he’s going to raze the planet,’” Mr. DeSantis told reporters last year. “But, you know, the response from people was ‘Oh, hell, he’s raising an army? I want to join! Let’s do it.’”
The state leaders responsible for the program, whose troubles were first reported by The Tampa Bay Times, said it made sense to create a military-style organization that could operate easily with the National Guard.
“Since the original formation of the Florida State Guard during World War II, members of the Florida State Guard have been considered soldiers,” said Ben Fairbrother, the organization’s chief of staff.
Of the 150 people accepted into the program, 120 had graduated, program officials said.
“We are aware that some trainees who were removed are dissatisfied,” Maj. Gen. John D. Haas, Florida’s adjutant general, said in a statement.
“This is to be expected with any course that demands rigor and discipline,” he added. “The overwhelming majority of the participants have lauded the training and, in fact, have appreciated the opportunity to self-reflect and become better citizens.”
As planning for the organization got underway this year, ambitions for the group quickly expanded.
The original plan to field 200 volunteers with a budget of $3.5 million, proposed in late 2021, grew to 1,500 people and $108 million. The first-year budget includes $50 million for five aircraft and $2.7 million for boats — equipment that many experts say is beyond the budget of most State Guards.
When the initial boot camp began in June, Mr. Newhouse and six other volunteers who spoke to The Times said they were surprised to find that the training syllabus included such lessons as rappelling off buildings and learning to use a compass to navigate out of the woods, skills they said seemed better suited to training for war.
One of the recruits, who like most of the others did not want to be named because of fear of reprisals, described the training as more like a “military fantasy camp” than the practical instruction expected in topics such as how to respond to hurricanes.
The volunteers said the training seemed poorly structured, with an inordinate amount of time spent, as one of them described it, “marching in fields.” Some of the men said that as veterans with years of experience in the military, they were offended when they were yelled at by junior instructors acting like drill sergeants, who disregarded their previous ranks.
They said they had expected sessions on such things as how to set up distribution of water and other resources during disasters. But that training, a copy of the schedule shows, came only at the very end, after classes on marksmanship and the concealed carry of weapons as well as a “combatives” class on hand-to-hand combat.
Most State Guard units across the country, including large forces in states like New York, California and Texas, act as counterparts to the National Guard, a military organization whose members may also be called out by governors during natural disasters or other civil emergencies.
“The bureaucrats in D.C. who control our National Guard have also refused to increase the number of guardsmen despite our increasing population, leaving Florida with the second-worst National Guardsman-to-resident ratio,” Mr. DeSantis said when he announced the new State Guard last year.
Mr. Fairbrother said the inaugural training session last month included instruction in land navigation, water safety, water rescue, boat rescue, disaster response and recovery and basic life support, including CPR — training that would prepare recruits to respond to a wide variety of emergencies.
He said law enforcement was a necessary component of the Guard’s job because local police officers might themselves become victims of natural disasters.
But Mr. Newhouse and several other recruits said they had understood the concept much differently when they joined, picturing themselves wearing khakis and polo shirts, not camouflage uniforms, in an organization that would be more like the Federal Emergency Management Agency than the U.S. Army.
“It has basically turned into everything we were told it wasn’t going to be,” Mr. Newhouse said.
A 51-year-old former Marine captain who had retired from the military with a disability and later joined the State Guard also clashed with instructors during the initial boot camp last month, raising concerns about the training. In an assault complaint filed with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, the man said he was accused by the State Guard commander of being the “leader of the group” that had been criticizing the organization and its leadership. He was then forcibly pushed into a van against his objections and driven to the command post, where he was fired and escorted off the base, according to the complaint.
The sheriff’s report said that the former captain’s account appeared to be accurate, but that it constituted neither battery nor false imprisonment, so the office closed the case.
Reached by The Times, the man, who requested anonymity because he feared public backlash, said he could not discuss the matter because it was still under investigation by state authorities. Mr. Fairbrother declined to comment on the incident.
Of the nine original State Guard recruiters and commanders who spent months recruiting for the organization, fewer than a third remain. The staff director who had been a proponent of the less militarized version of the program, appointed in January, was removed from his post just days before the inaugural graduation. The program’s personnel director was fired this week.
Jean Marciniak, a former member of the New York State Guard who runs a website and podcast about the nation’s State Guards, said Florida’s decision to include an armed law enforcement unit was highly unusual, as was the provision in the law putting the State Guard under the governor’s direct command, rather than under the state Department of Military Affairs and the National Guard.
“I’m not saying it’s a red flag, but I’ll say it’s unusual,” Mr. Marciniak said. “The 18 other defense forces do it one way, and Florida is doing it another way.”
Mr. Marciniak posted a notice on his website on Friday saying that his organization, StateDefenseForce.com, had polled its members and decided not to endorse the new force. This was based on a concern much different from that raised by the recruits who left. The website noted that Florida’s State Guard was acting as a military organization when by law it was a civilian-led agency staffed by volunteers who could elect to quit in the middle of an emergency.
Unless the Guard implements an official rank structure and operates under the umbrella of the military, the notice said, “we will encourage our community to not join the organization.”
At the State Guard’s first graduation ceremony on June 30 at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Starke, Fla., Mr. Fairbrother told graduates and their families that the agency had built a strong team.
“From the first day the recruits walked through our doors and began this program, I’ve been enormously impressed with the caliber of individuals who chose to join us for this program,” he said. “For the last 28 days, I’ve met paramedics, general contractors, attorneys, welders, truck drivers, cybersecurity experts, C.E.O.s, C.F.O.s and much more.”
Tom Fabricio, the state representative who co-sponsored the bill that created the State Guard, also volunteered for the force and participated in the training.
A civil litigation lawyer in Miami-Dade County, Mr. Fabricio, 46, praised the boot camp as a positive experience. (The Times attended the Guard graduation, but officials would not allow a reporter to speak to any of the other recruits.)
“It was intense,” he said. “A lot of running, push-ups, leadership training, practical training, water rescue training and land navigation — elements that you would see in a traditional Army-type boot camp, however condensed to 28 days.”
He lost 15 pounds.
He said activities such as rappelling off buildings were more about team building than military tactics.
“I view it as hurricane preparedness training in case we were to have a catastrophic storm, which is likely,” he said. “We want to be able to be there and respond.”
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