If there’s one thing the Covid-19 crisis has taught us, it’s that unusual times call for unusual solutions.
That’s why in Rotterdam, New York, a group of trained soldiers and airmen sat in a call center for weeks, taking more than 118,000 calls from concerned citizens asking about the coronavirus.
And it’s why in Aurora, Colorado, some members of the Air National Guard’s 140th Wing Aircrew Flight Equipment shop stopped making parachutes and brandished their specialized sewing skills to make more than 500 facemasks for their community.
Across the country, members of the National Guard are adapting their usual response efforts to fit a crisis that has no precedent.
During the ongoing pandemic, their missions are sometimes – for lack of a better word – a little unconventional. After all, there aren’t too many movies or TV shows where soldiers and airmen are shown bagging testing kits or helping sanitize elder care facilities.
But these efforts, unglamorous as they may seem, are what really keep people safe.
Navigating a crisis without a blueprint
USNG members, whether part of the Air National Guard, the Army National Guard or other specialty reserve forces, are trained servicepeople who hold civilian jobs until the time comes for them to step in and serve. They are a common presence after disasters like severe weather or man-made attacks, which is when their special skills are acutely needed.
Eric Durr, the director of public affairs for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, said there’s an old line about the Guard’s duties in such disasters: “We guard stuff, we move stuff, we pick stuff up.”
For instance, he said, after the September 11th attacks, members of the New York National Guard were called to help with security, logistics and traffic control. During tornadoes and hurricanes, National Guard members may help distribute aid or move rubble and downed infrastructure.
“But this isn’t that kind of disaster,” he said. “And it doesn’t demand our usual competencies.”
Cleaning cars and answering phones
Guard members have a wide variety of skills and specialties. They also pick up new ones depending on the crisis they are helping with.
For example, members of the West Virginia National Guard recently cleaned and disinfected hundreds of ambulances and police cars to help lower coronavirus risks for first responders.
In Georgia, almost 1,000 airmen and soldiers helped disinfect more than 120 nursing home facilities in the state, and other state Guards have undertaken similar measures to protect elderly citizens.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo assigned the Guard one of its biggest missions: Manning the statewide call center. From March 11 through April 20, dozens of National Guard members worked nights and weekends answering calls until enough state employees could be brought in.
Now, as states ramp up their demand and capacity for testing, Guard members in New York and elsewhere are working, assembly-line style, to put together testing kits for medical use.
This type of work, Durr said, isn’t usual. But as the pandemic has depleted both human and emergency resources and opened up unusual pockets of need, it’s absolutely critical.
“The soldiers and airmen who belong to the National Guard, they’re manpower,” Durr said. “But they’ve also been trained. And what the military trains you to do is look at a problem, analyze it and do something.”
Packing, translating and testing
Right now, even the missions that feel familiar to Guard members – such as distributing aid, helping vulnerable communities, providing security and medical support – often come under unusual circumstances.
Around this time of year, the California National Guard would usually be fully focused on preparing for wildfire season. Instead, hundreds of guard members are manning food banks around the state as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s focus on humanitarian coronavirus aid.
“This is a mission that we’ve never been involved with before,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, public affairs director for the Cal Guard, said. “With wildfires, they can be contained and we can move on. But this mission evolves. It changes from one day to another.”
As the needs of communities change, so do the Guard’s duties. For instance, Shiroma said some service members are now transitioning to longer-term missions like supporting elderly citizens by delivering groceries to their homes.
Senior citizens are just one of the vulnerable populations that benefit from such specialized help.
In Washington state, linguists with the 341st Military Intelligence Battalion used their collective polyglotism to translate coronavirus safety materials into 12 languages, so non-English speaking communities can have better access to official guidance and be less vulnerable to misinformation.
Around the country, service members are also connecting with inmate and homeless communities to administer testing and ensure people are properly fed.
“It goes along with the National Guard’s mission,” Shiroma said. “We are the citizen solider and airman. We’re doctors and nurses and trash collectors. We live and work in your communities, and it’s part of our duty to give back to those communities.”
Conversely, there are some missions that may seem unusual – unthinkable, even – that National Guard members are sadly all too prepared to handle.
In New York City, 255 soldiers and airmen are assigned to support the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Their job: Recover and transport people who have died from Covid-19 in private residences, nursing homes or anywhere outside of hospital walls.
It’s hard work. It’s emotionally challenging. It’s something specially trained service members sometimes have to do.
Just not like this.
“It is a humbling experience,” New York Air National Guard 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin said in a National Guard news release. “You can only make it so realistic in training. You see things you’d never thought you’d see in your military service.”
Lavin is the commander of 107th Attack Wing Fatality Search and Recovery Team. The FSRT is part of the Homeland Response Force. When a terrorist attack happens, or a building blows up, or mass casualties are on the line, members of the HRF are the ones who go in after the police are exhausted, extracting both survivors and victims from the disaster.
In this disaster, there is no building or rubble. There is no tornado or hurricane, no downed power lines or ground zero.
The threat is quiet, relentless and ever-changing, and so too is the defense.