By WO1 David Brown, Texas State Guard
History will record that in the spring of 2020, a silent, invisible killer attacked on the home front.
Even before the Governor officially activated Texas Military forces on March 17, members of the Texas State Guard (TXSG) were taking steps to get ready for what most could see coming: a statewide deployment to help combat COVID-19.
Conceived as a state defense force, one could say the TXSG was built for a battle like this. But not even veterans of past disasters could expect what fighting the coronavirus would entail.
“Unpredictability and dealing with the unknowns - that’s the biggest thing,” CPT Cyla Barron explained. Barron has served in the U.S. Marine Corps, the National Guard, and in several different posts in the TXSG, including Battle Captain in the TXSG Emergency Operations Center (TEOC), during Hurricane Harvey. Now Barron is back in the TEOC, the operational hub for the State Guard, monitoring oversized screens with the latest numbers of coronavirus cases, tracking potential hot-spots and helping to coordinate the deployment of TXSG troops with liaison officers from the Texas Army National Guard, Texas Air National Guard and Texas Department of Emergency Management.
“Harvey was fairly predictable. We could see it coming and stay one step ahead. Now (with COVID-19) we have to monitor and respond to a constantly changing deadly threat and at the same time protect ourselves from getting ill.”
On another screen in the TEOC, Barron, Asst. Battle Captain WO1 Jon Gimble and Battle NCO SGT Travis Ross tracked the progress of a team of TXSG engineers, evaluating potential medical overflow facilities in northeast Texas. The TXSG team was part of a Joint Engineer Task Force which included specialists from the National Guard and the State Construction Management and Facilities office.
“The TXSG brings added value in a situation like this,” said LTC Cecil Bell, the recently appointed Chief of Engineers for the TXSG. In addition to serving in the TXSG, Bell is a Texas State Representative, and a licensed expert in water infrastructure construction. “If you’re an engineer in the State Guard, you have an advanced degree, you’re a working professional, you have licensed state certification; what we drill on is what we do in our day jobs.”
As a practical demonstration of that added value, potential medical overflow facilities were evaluated using a checklist designed by a TXSG engineer, Bell said. “That’s part of the uniqueness of our role in this fight against COVID-19: we have a skill set that includes many years of real-world facility operations and maintenance know-how.” His observation echoes the ideal of the highly trained citizen-solider at the core of the TXSG.
Though proficient in and tested on FEMA best practices, PFC Patrick Mejia, a Guardsman based in San Antonio, could hardly have anticipated what the fight against COVID-19 would throw at him: a constant parade of oversized 18-wheelers bringing in and hauling out personal protection equipment (PPE) to the Texas Department of Emergency Management warehouse in the ‘Alamo City’.
By day, Mejia works as a recruiter for the Texas ChalleNGe Academy, a tuition-free education program for teens disengaged with traditional school, sponsored by the National Guard. Since his deployment on April 3rd, Mejia has put his work and home life on hold to serve his fellow Texans in 7-day-a-week shifts, from 0400 to 1600. His job involves warehouse logistics for items such as face masks, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, blankets, and other critical goods in short supply statewide.
As soon as Mejia could get a new load of pallets numbered and labelled, notice would come in from the State Operations Center (SOC) in Austin to prepare for a pick-up. Working alongside members of the Army National Guard and the Texas A&M Forest Service, Mejia and fellow Guardsman PVT Ricardo Espinoza would help load up shipments for delivery to hospitals, armories and local institutions in Lubbock, Dallas, El Paso, and all points in between.
“Working in the warehouse, sometimes you feel like you’re in a bubble. It hurts because you know there are people who need this equipment, these are your neighbors and the numbers are growing,” Mejia said. “And there’s the fatigue, the lack of sleep...then you see on the (TV) news a delivery being made to a hospital...and it’s like “hey! That’s my writing on the side of that pallet!”
Farther east down I-10, SGT Eseil Hernandez and PFC Johnathan Williams of the TXSG 2nd Brigade were working in warehouse support operations alongside colleagues in the 1st Squadron, 112th Regiment of the Texas Army National Guard providing assistance to the greater Houston area. Facing time pressures to get critical medical supplies into the distribution chain, Guardsmen employed technology originally designed for shelter and evacuation missions. “I use the same equipment I trained with to scan people and their belongings (during evacuations) to keep track of essential medical supplies that can be quickly dispatched from our distribution point as needed,” Hernandez explained.
“I don’t mind stepping away from my job to be of service to the community,” Williams added. “It is about the oath I took when I enlisted.”
It’s about Texans helping Texans. It’s about making a difference.
“At a time of unprecedented uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not be more proud of the men and women of the Texas State Guard,” said Robert J. Bodisch, Sr, Commanding General, TXSG. “This is not a normal mission, but these are not normal times. From our medical professionals, engineer teams, logistics and staging, operations and administrative personnel, and many others, the TXSG has proven once again we are always ready and able to answer the call to serve our fellow Texans. We are also recruiting new members and those who need a purpose and a chance to belong to something greater than themselves.”
“It is exhausting, the long hours,” TEOC Battle Captain Barron concedes, “but it makes me so proud to be here, working alongside people who come from all walks of private life bringing their experiences to the table to help their Texas neighbors...there’s a true sense of camaraderie.”
And one might add, even in these trying times, a sense of something more. A sense of: Duty. Honor. Texas.