Feature   Defense News

North Carolina National Guard Continues COVID-19 Response Efforts

Nov. 19, 2020 , North Carolina National Guard

For some Americans, life is slowly getting back to normal with more people returning to work and school across the country.

Despite that, many states are still responding to problems brought on by the pandemic, including an increased need for COVID-19 testing and a larger population now relying on assistance from food banks.

A civilian woman and a soldier talk to patients at a drive-thru.
Drive-Thru Test
Tech. Sgt. Tony Wyatt, assigned to the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 263rd Combat Communications Squadron, left, and Burneta Barley, a registered nurse with Rhino Medical Services, talk to a patient in line at a drive-thru COVID-19 test site in High Point, N, C., Nov. 13, 2020.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Mary Junell
VIRIN: 201113-Z-GT365-0037

That is where the North Carolina National Guard steps in. In late September, more than 170 Army and Air Guardsmen were activated to support their state and ease the pressure of responding to a crisis. 

One of the largest areas where guardsmen are supporting North Carolina is at food banks across the state. 

Mary Maxton, the manager of volunteer engagement at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said they have seen an increase from 600,000 people in need to 800,000 across the 34 counties they support. 

The Raleigh-based food bank where Maxton works now has a team of five N.C. Guardsmen filling the gaps where their volunteer base has decreased from around 90 volunteers a day to an average of 20.

"It's challenging to be here all day for any volunteer, and I know five days in a row is a lot, so we really appreciate the [N.C. National Guard] and all they do." Maxton said. "It's been a tremendous help. It's very nice to have a consistent five people coming in every day."

For many of the soldiers, including 1st Lt. Charles Brown, a platoon leader with the 878th Engineer Company, working at the food bank is a fulfilling experience that led them to join the N.C. Guard in the first place. 

A soldier with personal protective gear takes down information.
Patient Info
Pfc. Pedro Dominguez, assigned to the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 875th Engineer Company, enters a patient’s information at a drive-thru COVID-19 test site in High Point, N.C., Nov. 13, 2020. More than 170 North Carolina National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are activated across the state to support N.C. Emergency Management’s response to the pandemic.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Mary Junell
VIRIN: 201113-Z-GT365-0154C

"I'm glad me and my guys could help out here," Brown said. "This is really what I signed up for six years ago, to serve my community."

The five-man team works on all the projects that come through the food bank including distribution, which brings the soldiers face-to-face with the people they are supporting. 

"It's really great to see some of the faces light up when they get the food that they need," said Cpl. Dakotah Teter, a combat engineer with the 151st Mobility Augmentation Company.

But food insecurity isn't the only need guardsmen are supporting. Several teams are stationed at COVID-19 test sites across North Carolina, including a site in High Point where four soldiers and one airman are teaming up with Rhino Medical Services at a drive-thru test site. 

The guardsmen register patients to get tested and help with the logistics of operating the site. 

Burneta Barley, a registered nurse and team lead with Rhino Medical Services said having the guardsmen supporting means the nurses can focus on doing more tests.

A soldier hands out masks to people in a car at a drive-thru testing site.
Test Site
Tech. Sgt. Tony Wyatt, assigned to the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 263rd Combat Communications Squadron, gives masks to a patient at a COVID-19 test site in High Point, N.C., Nov. 13, 2020.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Mary Junell
VIRIN: 201113-Z-GT365-0090C

"We're averaging between 80 and 90 a day," Barley said. "Everyone works well together, it's almost like a family to be honest because we spend almost 6 to 7 hours together a day."

Although it is not uncommon for guardsmen to support their communities during times of need, the work they do when responding to a hurricane or winter storm more closely resembles their military jobs than the work many of them are doing to support the COVID-19 response.

"Going from our regular military jobs of digging in the dirt to helping out with COVID tests, it's an entirely different monster in my opinion," said Spc. Bennie Kinley with the 875th Engineer Company. "It's a different experience when you've got people you know in your local community showing up."

As long as North Carolina has a need, Army and Air Guardsmen will continue to be activated to support the pandemic response across the state. Since March of this year, guardsmen have supported the distribution of more than 6.2 million food bank meals and assisted with the testing of close to 21,000 citizens.