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Feature   Defense News

Guardsmen Adapt to Changing Missions During COVID-19 Response

July 28, 2020 | BY Joseph Siemandel , Washington National Guard
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While many people in Washington state are returning to work, hundreds of soldiers and airmen from the Washington National Guard are entering their fourth month of supporting the state's COVID-19 response, but some of the jobs they are performing have changed.

''When I first started on orders, I was working at a test site in Bremerton, but now I am making the test kits,'' said Army Spc. Dameon Spurgeon, a motor transportation operator with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1041st Transportation Company.

At first, he said, he was confused at why he and his fellow guardsmen were wearing protective suits and masks. ''But then we started testing people, and it made sense,'' he said. ''We were interacting directly with individuals that could have the virus.''

A soldier wearing a face mask reaches into a box of vials while assembling COVID-19 test kits.
Test Kit Assembly
Army Spc. Dameon Spurgeon, a motor transportation operator with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1041st Transportation Company, assembles test kits at the Department of Health warehouse in Tumwater, Wash., July 8, 2020. Spurgeon is part of a team assembling more than 2.4 million test kits.
Photo By: Joseph Siemandel, Washington National Guard
VIRIN: 200709-D-MN117-328

Spurgeon is one of more than 1,000 guardsmen who were activated four months ago to support the overall COVID-19 response in Washington. Guardsmen continue to support food banks, conduct COVID-19 mapping, operate community-based testing sites, assemble test kits and assist state officials with processing unemployment claims. Spurgeon's team has been tasked with assembling more than 2.4 million test kits for the state by the end of August.

''I know this mission is critical, and we are running very smoothly,'' he said. ''I think we are expected to break 1 million next week.''

An aquatics manager at Great Wolf Lodge and reserve police officer in Tenino, Washington, Spurgeon says supporting the COVID-19 response is just part of what he likes to do: helping those who need help. In 2017, he was activated to fill sandbags in support of a flood in the small eastern Washington town of Sprague.

''I have always wanted to help our communities, whether it is being a lifeguard, a police officer, or a guardsman,'' Spurgeon said. ''I am just happy to help.''

While the number of food bank missions has been cut in half as volunteers who had been homebound are returning, some guardsmen have moved from the larger processing missions in SODO, part of Seattle’s industrial district, to the food banks to work with the public.

A soldier wearing a face mask and latex gloves helps a visitor at a food bank.
Food Bank Help
Army Spc. Alex Wanjiku, a motor transportation operator with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1041st Transportation Company, assists a visitor at the St. Leo's Food Bank in Tacoma, Wash., July 8, 2020. The Washington National Guard has helped to process, pack and distribute more than 35 million pounds of food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Joseph Siemandel, Washington National Guard
VIRIN: 200708-D-MN117-575

''The interactions with people are overwhelming,'' Army Spc. Alex Wanjiku said. ''While at SODO, although we knew we were, it didn't seem like we were helping out but moving from the warehouse to here I now see it.''

Wanjiku moved to America from Kenya three years ago and immediately joined the National Guard because he wanted to assist others during their times of need. Since being activated, he has gone from processing food at the South Seattle warehouse locations to passing out food at the St. Leo's Food Bank in Tacoma, Washington.

''Here I am, seeing the people I am helping, and they are so grateful,'' he said.

Army Sgt. Nikko Ethridge, a cavalry scout with the Washington Army National Guard and a full-time corrections officer for the Department of Corrections in civilian life, has been serving since the initial call-up. While originally starting at the SODO warehouse, he has supported two different activations, moving to the civil unrest mission in June.

''When I started, I was working at the SODO warehouse,'' Ehtridge said. ''Then my unit was asked to go to Bellevue to provide support following the civil unrest. The people in Bellevue were so supportive of the guard being there, and it was a nice break from the food bank mission.''

A soldier wearing a face mask carries a box of bananas at a food bank.
Food Support
Army Sgt. Nikko Ethridge, a cavalry scout with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, helps a visitor at the St. Leo's Food Bank in Tacoma, Wash., July 8, 2020. The guard has helped to process, pack and distribute more than 35 million pounds of food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Joseph Siemandel, Washington National Guard
VIRIN: 200708-D-MN117-078

Ethridge used the break to move to the Kent distribution center, which was closer to home and then to the St. Leo's Food Bank.

''At the warehouse, you are packing food and it's easy to forget about the mission. But here you see where the food is going,'' Ethridge said. ''We are working more hours here, have less breaks, but you never would know it. It is definitely more rewarding.''

All three said they plan to support the mission through the duration, and if they move to different locations or jobs, they are happy to do whatever to assist others.

''I love the state, like helping people, and what is a better way than working for the National Guard to do that?'' Ethridge said.

(Joseph Siemandel is assigned to the Washington National Guard Joint Force Headquarters.)