A joint military task force is working to help their fellow Ohioans as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect their state.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a proclamation March 18 authorizing the activation of about 400 Ohio National Guard personnel to support a humanitarian mission in response to the COVID-19 pandemic facing the state.
Ohio National Guard members were placed on state active duty, along with some members of the Ohio Military Reserve, to support Operation Steady Resolve. The initial mission is to assist 12 food banks across Ohio with packaging, transporting and distributing food and other essential items to all 88 counties in support of the state’s most vulnerable populations.
“When the community calls, we respond,” said Army Lt. Col. Mike Draper, chief of staff for Joint Task Force 37. “Our mission may grow, but whatever those missions are, we are here to help.”
The governor’s proclamation was made in response to a request for assistance from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services after a significant number of people who normally volunteer at food banks around the state were directed to stay home. Most food bank volunteers are retired and in a high-risk age group for potentially contracting COVID-19, officials said.
“They became overwhelmed, given the impact [COVID-19] has had on their labor force, and we’ve been able to plug that gap so far,” said Army Maj. Nick Palmer, operations officer for JTF-37.
Draper said he understands that people may be concerned when they see National Guard personnel in their neighborhoods during this pandemic, and that he has tried to reassure citizens that the Guard members working at each of the 12 food banks are from the local area they are supporting.
Although Operation Steady Resolve is still in the early phases, Draper said, the Guard members supporting one of the food banks were able to package more than a thousand meals in a single day, which is more than half of what that specific food bank packages in a typical month.
While those supporting Operation Steady Resolve potentially face exposure to the coronavirus while serving their duties, JTF 37 is actively working to ensure their safety. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Gary Katz, a flight surgeon assigned to the Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Wing, was called to active duty and is working on JTF 37. He said he has issued numerous health advisories to Guard members performing the mission.
“We don’t know how long this mission will last, and we have to make certain our force is healthy so they can keep providing aid and comfort to our neighbors in need,” Katz said. “I’m confident the measures we are taking will help diminish the severity of this situation.”
While JTF 37 is actively working to limit the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an unprecedented event for the National Guard that requires an unprecedented response.
“This is unlike anything else we’ve ever done before,” Draper said. “We typically respond to event-driven emergencies — tornadoes, floods, snow storms, hurricanes — events with shorter life-cycles and tangible impacts. This challenge we face now is invisible, it’s growing at an increasingly rapid rate and it has an unnerving effect on the public. We can be that calming presence for our community.”
Palmer agreed. “This is coast-to-coast,” he said. “It’s in our homes, whether that’s the actual infection or the fear of it. There isn’t a single person in this country that isn’t impacted by COVID-19. In this time of fear and disruption of daily life, we’re ready and we’re here. We’re in this together and we’re fulfilling our contract to Ohioans.”
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane Hughes is assigned to the Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Wing.)