People expect to see the Army National Guard during disasters.
In Huntington, W.Va., the guard has been called in to help tackle the opioid crisis — which the governor has described as a disaster.
“We have to stop this terrible drug epidemic,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said. “We have to. If we don't, it will cannibalize us."
Huntington has been called the overdose capital of America, with double the national average of overdoses, due in part to the decline of the coal industry, a lack of jobs and the easy availability of the drugs. And law enforcement is stretched thin.
“I don't think there is a police department in America that has all the resources they need,” Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial said. “It is a complex problem and it needed a complex solution."
The guard is flying its Lakota helicopters on reconnaissance missions in coordination with local police, providing eyes in the sky during busts and while serving warrants.
But its primary role is technical and analytical support.
Guardsman, who asked not to be identified, are manning hotlines and working on computers inside Huntington Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, helping track down dealers and drug networks so cops can focus on the street.
On Wednesday, the guard answered a call that led to the bust of an alleged dealer and the recovery of 430 grams of fentanyl, far more powerful than heroin, with a street value of $86,000.
“We are solving a problem in our country,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, a West Virginia National Guard commander. “And, at the same time, making sure we have the highest level of readiness to respond to something else that may be out there, somewhere else in the world."
U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.V., said this drastic step is needed to make a dent in the raging opioid crisis.
“We have people's lives at risk,” Jenkins said. “We have horrifically lost way too many lives as result. It is a bold action but, you know what, we need to take action and we are doing that..."
There will not be Humvees blocking roads or soldiers on the street corners with long guns. But the guard could be deployed in this state for years – funded by the state – as long as cops say they need help.